Decent Films Blog
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.)
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.
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!
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  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  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.
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 8½ 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.
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).
A few weeks ago the National Catholic Register ran my 2009 year-end piece with my lists of “top ten” and runner-up films. (An expanded version of the article appeared at Decent Films.) This week, I’d like to catch up with a few other lists from Christian sources worth noting.
Earlier this week, Christianity Today Movies & TV released the second of its two annual Top 10 lists, the CT Critics’ Choice Awards. Last week CT released its other list, the 10 Most Redeeming Films of 2009. (Full disclosure/disclaimer: As a regular CT contributor, I voted in these awards, though I didn’t necessarily vote for all the winners, or even see them all.)
In 1-10 order, the 2009 CT Critics Choice winners are: The Hurt Locker, Up, The Road, Up in the Air, A Serious Man, Summer Hours, (500) Days of Summer, Star Trek, Avatar and Inglourious Basterds. The 10 Most Redeeming Films are: Up, The Blind Side, Invictus, The Road, The Soloist, Where the Wild Things Are, District 9, The Hurt Locker, Julie & Julia and Up in the Air.
As you can see, there’s some overlap between the two sets of lists, and regular readers may note that some titles overlap with my own 2009 top 10 lists, including Up, Summer Hours, Star Trek, Avatar, Where the Wild Things Are and District 9.
One nice thing about the CT Movies lists is that they offer supplementary lists of “Ones that Got Away,” allowing each critic to add one film to both list categories. Happily, two of my favorite films of the year, Bright Star and Crazy Heart, were nominated for both “Got Away” lists. Other welcome additions include Ponyo, Coraline, Earth and The Young Victoria. My own nominees were Tulpan, a remarkable depiction of life among the yurt-dwelling shepherds of Kazakhstan’s Hunger Steppe (for Critics Choice) and The 13th Day, a lovely indie film on the Marian apparitions at Fatima (for Most Redeeming).
At the top, in 1-10 order: Summer Hours, Munyurangabo, Seraphine, Up, The Class, Lake Tahoe, A Serious Man, Gomorra, Coraline and Where the Wild Things Are. Six of these titles overlap with titles from my top 20, along with four more from Jeff’s second ten, Bright Star, Lorna’s Silence, Moon and Star Trek. Some of Jeff’s picks I haven’t seen and now want to, including Phoebe in Wonderland, Duplicity and An Education (which also cropped up in one of CT’s “Got Away” lists). Among his runners-up are others I admire, including District 9, The Informant! and Ponyo. See Jeff’s lists for write-ups on the films.
At St. Anthony Messenger, Sister Rose Pecatte bestowed her CineRose Film Awards. Punning on her first name, Sr. Rose awarded “A Bouquet of Roses” to nine films (unranked): The Blind Side, Precious, Up, The Princess and the Frog, Julie & Julia, The Hurt Locker, The Last Station, Food, Inc., The End of Poverty. “Four Roses” go to A Christmas Carol, Amreeka, Imagine That, The Soloist, Where the Wild Things Are and The Informant!
A final note: Looking over all these lists, among others, if I could highlight one title deserving of more attention, it would be Katyn, Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s trenchant commemoration of the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre. It’s a brilliantly made, devastating film, imbued with Poland’s constitutional Catholic spirit, and well worth the attention of mature viewers. I’ll try to write a review soon.
My Lenten viewing suggestions prompted a reader to ask:
Would you consider supplementing an English-only list? I love the idea of a Lenten movie night, but I have several children under reading age, and my husband just dislikes reading his movies. LOL. I will have to carve out time on my own during the week to watch the intriguing foreign films you have included.
In reply, I’ve supplemented my original blog post with a follow-up mail response, posted at the bottom of the original blog post.
If so, check out the Emeth Society, billed as “A Book and Film Society Promoting Catholic Culture in the Diocese of Phoenix.”
And if you don’t live near Phoenix, check out their website anyway, and ask yourself, “How can I get something like this going in my diocese?”
No matter where you live, the Emeth Society’s website is worth a gander just for the excellent blogroll-style sidebar of links: authors, Catholic theologians, education, film and more. I’m sure this is only such sidebar ever assembled to bring together links for Hayao Miyazaki, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Ballet Arizona, the Arts & Faith Top 100 Spiritual Films and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins all in one place.
If you do live near Phoenix, definitely don’t miss the Emeth Society’s next film screening, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which also happens to be one of my six recommended movies for the six weeks of Lent. (So they’re watching it in week 2 instead of week 5, let’s not get legalistic about these things.)
The traditional forty days of Lent, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II have reminded us, recall our Lord’s forty days of fasting in the desert. In Lent we are invited to join Christ in the desert, to recapitulate Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering.
Lent is a penitential season, but also an invitation to a closer intimacy with God. The Pentateuch presents the forty years of wilderness wandering as a punishment for unbelief, but the prophets offer a startling complementary vision of the desert as a privileged time of intimacy between God and Israel, a romantic season in which God wooed Israel as his bride (Jeremiah 2:2, Hosea 2:16).
The two aspects are inseparable; the time of privileged closeness to God must also be a penitential experience of wilderness wandering. Pope Benedict has recently reminded us of the three specific practices the Church proposes especially during Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
All three are important and even inseparable; fasting can’t be abstracted from prayer, nor prayer from active charity for one’s neighbor in need. That said, in his address above Pope Benedict focuses on almsgiving in particular. I’ve written in the past about fasting (see A Short Primer on Fasting; More on Fasting … More), a discipline sadly neglected in the Christian West.
In my second post above I ventured with trepidation to lament that the Latin Church’s current discipline on fasting and abstinence seems mere token ascesis. I was gratified by the confirming comment of canon law professor Ed Peters, who opined that the current law of fast “does not even get to the level of token: it is purely legalistic. And I think THAT breeds contempt for law.”
As a point of contrast, our Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brethren observe regimen that includes (but is not limited to) completely eschewing meat and all animal products (eggs, dairy, etc.) throughout all of Lent. I have to admit that strikes me as dauntingly severe, but my hat’s off to them. Of course, many Catholics go far beyond the official requirements, but many others don’t, and I’m saddened that the bar is set so low.
A few words about film and media.
Many Catholics observe Lent with a discipline of withdrawal, in whole or in part, from mass communications media: movies, television, Internet, radio, music, newspapers. This is an admirable discipline, and one I recommend.
Short of withdrawal, I recommend limiting and altering one’s media use in keeping with the spirit of the season. For example, if you typically have, say, U2 or Taylor Swift CDs in your car, or if you listen to talk radio, try exchanging your usual listening for some Gregorian chant. (If you usually listen to chant, try holy silence, or maybe CDs of the Bible or something.)
My work doesn’t permit me not to watch movies at all. I could try to cut back to the bare minimum of movies necessary to do my job, but I find it helpful to make a practice of spiritual viewing during Lent, just as many make a practice of spiritual reading.
For those inclined to consider this practice, here are six suggestions for the six weeks of Lent, with links to reviews at Decent Films.
One thought I’ve had for using the site’s new features, including the blog and the homepage Spotlight, is to highlight some of my past writing for particular occasions, or even for no particular occasion, just to bring an older piece to the attention of readers who might not have encountered it before.
This weekend, the release of The Wolfman made me think of highlighting my 2003 essay on horror and the macabre, originally written for the re-release of Ridley Scott’s Alien. At first I thought I would take the occasion to make a few cosmetic changes, but as I began pulling threads here and there, I kept thinking of ways to improve the piece, until I wound up doing quite a bit more work expanding the piece than I originally intended. (The story of my life…)
Anyway, enjoy the expanded piece.
Last week I blogged about my upcoming Catholic Answers Live appearance — but I wrote the wrong day. It’s Thursday, 2/11, not Friday, 2/12, from 7pm–8pm EST / 4pm–5pm PST. Sorry for the confusion!
I’ll be reviewing two movies opening this weekend, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief and The Wolfman, so those will naturally be on the agenda. We’ll also probably be talking about Legion, The Book of Eli, Avatar, the Oscar nominations and the 2009 Decent Films top 10.
Other than that, discussion will go wherever callers take it.
In a short piece at Variety, Roger Friedman (hat tip: Peter Chattaway) writes about the upcoming Ridley Scott movie Robin Hood:
Now comes Crowe and Scott. I am told they’ve been screening the new Robin Hood for insiders. Everyone likes it. Universal is counting on a big hit leading into Memorial Day. Certainly the main actors at least have accents to begin with.
But wait: Does the public want a dark, brooding Robin Hood…? Robin Hood movies and TV shows are always fun. The Ridley Scott movie doesn’t sound like fun from what I’ve been told. It’s dead serious. “I don’t know if it will make money,” says a source. “But it will be respected. It’s dark, violent and very Gladiator.”
“Robin Hood” started out as “Nottingham.” Many scripts came and went, and along with them, many millions of dollars. The shooting script was revised a lot while the movie was being shot. Crowe is prone to clashes with Scott. The rumors fly! Something tells me Universal won’t let anything but a blockbuster be the final release.
Nottingham, the project that ultimately became Robin Hood, was originally conceived, according to an earlier Variety piece, as “a revisionist take on the Robin Hood tale, with Nottingham as a noble and brave lawman who labors for a corrupt king and engages in a love triangle with Maid Marion and Robin Hood.” At that point, Russell Crowe was set to play the Sheriff. The change of title and recasting of Crowe suggests that Robin Hood is at least the protagonist again; whether we can call him the hero remains to be seen.
The last really solid Hollywood take on the traditional Robin Hood mythos (not counting the Kevin Costner folly, because, well, it doesn’t count) was over 70 years ago, and is essentially the only one in its class (unless you want to go back to the silent era). A revisionist take on Robin Hood would be one thing if the traditionally heroic Robin Hood could be taken for granted as a cultural reference point. What have we come to if we can only view a legendary icon like Robin Hood through skeptical, revisionist lenses?
Fantasy heroes like Aragorn or Spider-Man are another story. Those we can still do more or less straight, even if Peter Jackson’s Aragorn had to be all self-doubting and reluctant (even more so than Tolkien’s character) to seize his destiny, because Hollywood equates certitude with folly and doubt with thoughtfulness. (The Aragorn Complex, as I call this doubtful-leader device, can also be seen in The Prince of Egypt’s Moses and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s Peter Pevensie.) Nor do I object to the deeply ambiguous recent Hollywood depictions of, say, Batman and James Bond, dark characterizations with well-established roots in those characters’ histories. (Efforts to rehabilitate traditional villains, like Wicked’s take on the Wicked Witch of the West, are another matter.)
Robin Hood is an icon of our own legendary past as well as our cultural ideals of justice, courage and charity. Another example is King Arthur. Poor King Arthur has never gotten his due from Hollywood, even in the Golden Age, though Richard Thorpe’s watchable 1953 film The Knights of the Round Table was at least a stab in that direction, and a conspicuously Christian one. Boorman’s Excalibur was an interesting pastiche of Arthuriana, but didn’t pull it together into a coherent whole, and First Knight was just a stinker (though I like Arthur’s response to Mordred’s philosophy of might: “God makes us strong for a little while, so that we may help one another”).
Worst was Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, which depicted Arthur as a well-meaning but naive Catholic loyal to “a Rome that doesn’t exist,” a figure of an enlightened but doomed Christianity strangely identified with the founder of the Pelagian heresy. Guenevere, here reimagined as a pagan Celtic warrior princess, taunts Arthur, “I belong to this land. Do you belong anywhere, Arthur?”
That sense of existential homelessness about sums up the kind of Hollywood revisionism I have in mind here as well as anything. Traditionally, stories about heroes like Robin Hood and King Arthur didn’t just entertain, they told us who we are and what we believe in. Our traditional heroes no longer know who they are or what they believe in. Self-doubt, self-examination and self-accusation are one thing. Take an axe to your own roots, and you wind up rootless.
Regular readers know that one of the critical voices I cite most often is my friend Peter T. Chattaway. For a ripping example of why Peter is so quotable, check out his brilliant blog post on Legion, now in theaters.
What a mess this movie is. When I first heard the premise two years ago, it raised certain questions for me … and I was curious to see how the movie would answer them. Well, in a nutshell, it doesn’t. It doesn’t even raise them …
How can anyone make a movie about a rebel angel — in this case, Michael, who turns against God and his fellow angels to protect humanity after God decides to wipe us out — and not bother to make even a passing reference to Lucifer?
Where the heck is the “legion” referred to in the movie’s title? We only get a good look at two of the angels: Michael and Gabriel …
The director has reportedly said that this film acts as though the New Testament never happened. But if that’s the case, why do the characters use words like “Christ” as a curse-word? How did that word get into their language? (It’s kind of like how The Invention of Lying depicts a world in which no one has ever believed in God or religion, but they still say they live in the “21st century” or whatever even though they have presumably never believed in Christ, without whom we wouldn’t have a division between B.C. and A.D. in the first place.)
The post is worth reading in full for Peter’s typically insightful observations on the iconic significance of color in a scene with a quasi-Marian figure and some startling parallels with other films now in theaters, among other things.
Last year’s Academy Awards were not the least-watched Oscars in history—that was the previous year—but they were widely perceived as contributing to the ongoing apathy of viewers by snubbing popular and critical favorites like The Dark Knight and WALL-E while honoring a roster of films (Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Milk, Doubt) aptly characterized by A. O. Scott’s phrase “hermetically sealed melodrama[s] of received thinking.” (By contrast, Scott called The Dark Knight and WALL-E “contrasting allegories pitched at the anxieties of the moment,” “populist entertainments of summertime” that incited the “interesting movie debates of 2008.”)
It was probably with an eye to overcoming that gap and reconnecting with viewers that the Academy announced last year that the list of Best Picture nominees would be expanded from five to ten, reviving a practice last seen in 1943.
This week’s announcement of the nominees for 2010 seem to provide some vindication of that decision. As Roger Ebert points out, one can surmise which of the ten Best Picture nominees would most likely have made a cut of five by comparing them to the five Best Director nominees. (This isn’t an infallible method, but it’s a good rule of thumb; last year the categories matched four out of five.)
That means without the expansion we would probably have gotten Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious and Up in the Air. The five “bonus” films are thus The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, A Serious Man and Up. While I haven’t yet seen all the films in either list, I find the latter five a more intriguing lineup than the former five. Anyway, at least four of the latter five are credible Best Picture material. (The Blind Side, a popular favorite with notable Christian themes, isn’t really Best Picture material, although Ross Douthat remarks that if “the alternative to ‘The Blind Side’ was ‘Invictus,’ then I’m glad the Academy went with Sandra Bullock’s hit instead.”)
But would the rule of ten have helped in another year? Would it have helped last year? After The Dark Knight and WALL-E, what then? Iron Man? That might be too many “millionaire playboy superhero with gadgets and no real powers” movies in one awards race even for me. Gran Torino? Changeling? Does Clint Eastwood need any more validation of his watchable but unremarkable films? Valkyrie? Tropic Thunder?
One side effect of the expansion is that a film that doesn’t make the cut of ten is even more snubbed than when it was only five. If it were only five, Invictus fans could feel like they were #6. Now they have to face having lost out not only to Up in the Air, but The Blind Side too. (Maybe the Academy is also starting to feel that Eastwood doesn’t need any more validation.)
For what it’s worth, only three of the Best Picture nominees were in my top 20, and only one (Up) was in my top 10, but it’s still a much better lineup than last year for my money.
Despite the expanded roster, it seems clear that all the drama remains between two films, ironically directed by ex-spouses James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow. Cameron’s mega-ultra-blockbuster Avatar dominated the Golden Globes, which often anticipate the Oscar winners—but then Bigelow’s taut, under-the-radar The Hurt Locker won at the Directors Guild Awards, which often anticipate the Best Director Oscar. A split decision—Avatar for Best Picture, Bigelow for best Director—isn’t out of the question. (Or perhaps the Academy could give them joint custody.)
Please don’t ask me to go through the acting awards and all. I just can’t work up the energy. (New York Times critic Manohla Dargis has sparked a meme in online Oscar discussion by remarking, “Let’s acknowledge that the Oscars are b—s— and we hate them.”)
One other category I do pay attention to is Best Animated Film. Most years, the ballot for this category is a short one, with only three films—and not infrequently even those three films aren’t all particularly memorable. (For 2001, the year the award was inaugurated, the ballot consisted of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Monsters, Inc. and Shrek. Probably the least inspired year for the category was 2006, with Cars, Happy Feet and Monster House.)
This year, for only the second time in the nine years since the award was created, there are five nominees. The other year was 2002, when Hayao Miyzaki’s brilliant Spirited Away beat out Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Treasure Planet (only one of which, Lilo & Stitch, is especially noteworthy).
This year’s lineup is the strongest ever: Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells and Up. I loved Up and Coraline, and while I wasn’t crazy about Fantastic Mr. Fox I can see where other people would be. The Princess and the Frog is at least a solid entertainment, though I agree with Ebert that Miyazaki’s Ponyo was more deserving.
That leaves The Secret of Kells—the first film ever nominated for the award that I hadn’t already seen, or even heard of. An off-the-map tale of Irish monks and Vikings, The Secret of Kells may or may not be a particularly good film, but it’s at least the sort of film I want to be looking out for. I guess the Oscars are occasionally good for something.
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Silent star Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. is still the silver screen’s ultimate swashbuckling Zorro. Tyrone Powers ideally embodies the sly subterfuge of a man of iron turning on a dime from foppish languor to finely double-edged banter to masked derring-do. But Guy Williams, hero of Walt Disney’s popular 1950s television series, is the most beloved Zorro of all time.
Well-written, exciting, funny, with multi-episode story arcs, “Zorro” sets a standard for family entertainment unmatched by any other television series I can think of. Last November, when the Walt Disney Treasures series released Zorro: The Complete Seasons 1 and 2, I started watching them with my kids — boys, girls, older and younger kids. These are kids who’ve grown up with Pixar, The Lord of the Rings, Miyazaki. For weeks on end we watched an episode a night of a half-century-old black-and-white TV series, almost finishing the first season before anyone felt like requesting something else one night.
The Walt Disney Treasures edition marks the DVD debut of the fully restored black-and-white series. A previous DVD edition offered the colorized version of the show. There is no reason on earth why “Zorro” should be colorized. Bias against black and white is an acquired prejudice that I have met more in adults than in children. Children are open to black and white, silent film, anything (“so terribly catholic,” as C. S. Lewis put it).
The TV show offers its own spin on the Zorro mythos in some ways. Williams’ Don Diego adopts a more studious than foppish manner, and his mute servant Bernardo (talented pantomimist Gene Sheldon) only feigns deafness to serve as his master’s spy. Sergeant García (Henry Calvin), fat, slow-witted, and overly fond of drink, is a comic relief stereotype, but a lovable one who often proves a stout-hearted ally to both Zorro and Don Diego. Even more than in past incarnations, Catholicism is a positive presence in a number of episodes — especially early in season 1, as when Father Filípe aids Zorro by giving sanctuary to a wrongfully arrested prisoner.
The Walt Disney Treasures edition includes four rare hour-long “Zorro” specials from “Walt Disney Presents,” filmed after the second season ended while Disney was still trying to get a third season off the ground. Introductions by Leonard Maltin, a pair of featurettes on Zorro’s many faces, and a behind-the-scenes extra with Guy Williams Jr. round out the handsomely packaged set.
Mild, occasionally deadly action swashbuckling; much drinking, sometimes to excess; rare oblique innuendo. Fine family viewing.
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Recently I experienced Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City for the first time, again.
A Vatican list film, Rossellini’s celebrated 1945 landmark of Italian neorealism is a must-see film for film lovers—and of course I saw it, and reviewed it, years ago. Even at the time, though, I knew I wasn’t really experiencing the film Rossellini made.
Partly this is because previous DVD and VHS versions of Open City were based on a print of the film with such spotty subtitles that they played as if the subtitler often got so absorbed in the story that he simply forgot for minutes at a time to keep up with the dialogue.
As a result, if you didn’t speak Italian, you missed over half of what was said … and if you did speak Italian, you were stuck with the distracting subtitles anyway, which were hard-printed onto the image and couldn’t be removed.
Now at last the Criterion Collection has come to the rescue with the Roberto Rossellini War Trilogy, a three-disc boxed edition that also includes Rossellini’s Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948).
What I didn’t know until I rewatched the film in the Criterion edition was the extent to which I hadn’t seen the film before. I did know that Rossellini’s team had to scrounge for whatever film stock they could find to shoot the film, which contributed to the gritty, grainy imperfection of the images. However, the degradation of the images was greatly compounded by the worn, dirty condition of the prints used in the previous editions. For anyone who has seen the previous versions, the clarity and beauty of the new Criterion editions is stunning.
As important as Rome, Open City is cinematically, the 1995 Vatican film list includes the film not for its artistic significance, but for its moral value (it’s listed among the 15 films in the Values category). Rossellini’s film offers searing images of evil in the Nazis’ racist reign of terror, and celebrates the human solidarity binding together ordinary citizens, Communist activists, Catholic priests and even children in surreptitious resistance to Nazi oppression.
Open City is notable for its Catholic milieu, embodied in the heroic priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), whose clerical status allows him to ignore curfews and even enter a building evacuated by the Nazis. Rossellini was not a faithful Catholic by any means, but his Catholic heritage was a significant factor in his work, most obviously in films like The Flowers of St. Francis and The Messiah. (The Flowers of St. Francis is also available in a must-have Criterion edition; The Messiah isn’t available on North American DVD, though you can dig it up on VHS used.)
I hadn’t seen Paisan or Germany Year Zero before, so the Rossellini War Trilogy is a fantastic opportunity to become more familiar with one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century.
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An associate professor of medicine as well as a serious movie buff, Peter Dans has an understandable interest in the portrayal of the medical field in cinema. In 2000 he channeled that interest into Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Ahh!, an entertaining and insightful study of social attitudes regarding medicine as illustrated by Hollywood. Dans is also a Catholic, and he has now published a second book, Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners, a similarly impressive inquiry into the cinematic portrayal of Christianity and Christians.
Like his first book, Christians in the Movies is both a highly readable and informative work of film commentary and a discussion of changing social attitudes. Just as doctors enjoyed a “golden age of medicine” before being knocked off their pedestals, Dans notes how “[t]he movie clergymen of my youth were tough-yet-good-hearted priests, often portrayed by big stars like Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, and Bing Crosby. Now it appeared that all orthodox clergy and believers were either vicious predators or narrow-minded, mean-spirited Pharisees.”
Dans not only documents changing images of faith, he sketches the larger social context of films from The Passion of Joan of Arc and Angels With Dirty Faces to Dogma and The Magdalene Sisters. (Full disclosure: Dans cites my article on that last film.)
“Vatican Lashes Out at ‘Avatar’” was the headline at an ABC News story. (Of course it does. It wouldn’t be the Vatican if it didn’t “lash out,” would it?) “Avatar is being slammed by the Vatican,” adds USA Today.
In reality, coverage of the film at L’Osservatore Romano (the Vatican’s quasi-official paper of record) and at Vatican Radio was more or less comparable to the mainstream of wider critical reaction, though obviously the Vatican gave greater attention to spiritual issues than critics generally.
Gaetano Vallini’s review in L’Osservatore Romano could hardly be called a “slam.” (He ends by noting “The visual spectacle alone is well worth the ticket price,” and calls Cameron’s Pandora “exceptionally well imagined and created.” At the same time, like many critics he is critical of the emotional hollowness of the “forgettable” plot, and offers critical perspective on the film’s spiritual and political dimensions.)
Getting the straight dope should be as easy as going to the Vatican website and pulling up the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano. Unfortunately, although the Church’s teachings consistently accord the communications media great importance, her practice lags behind her principles. There is a weekly English edition of L’Osservatore Romano, but it’s spotty (the Italian edition is daily), and as far as I can tell the Vatican website offers only articles from the current issue. (You can get previous issues on CD-ROM — up to 2008.)
A priest friend, frustrated by dodgy media coverage, recently sent me his own translation of the entire L’Osservatore Romano review, as well as of a segment that ran of Vatican Radio.
Here’s the L’Osservatore Romano piece (translation courtesy Fr. Shane Johnson).
Haiti guilt competed with self-congratulation at Sunday’s Golden Globes, which started with Nicole Kidman highlighting “Ribbons for Haiti” and George Clooney’s “Hope for Haiti” telethon, and wound up with James Cameron speaking in the invented Na’vi language from his film Avatar and repeatedly telling the audience to “give it up for yourselves.”
Host Ricky Gervais set a low tone early in the evening with obscene humor, and took a couple of pokes at Mel Gibson’s drinking, possibly getting his biggest laughs from Gibson himself. Meryl Streep was classy and humble accepting her award for Julie & Julia. Jeff Bridges scored points when he “complained” about his Golden Globe for Crazy Heart, protesting that the Hollywood Foreign Press was messing up his “underappreciated status.”
Robert Downey Jr. had one of the night’s best lines when started by thanking his wife Susan “for telling me that Matt Damon was going to win so ‘don’t bother to prepare a speech.’” The sentiment was less convincing when Cameron recycled it for his Best Director award, acknowledging his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, also a contender for directing The Hurt Locker. “Frankly, I thought Kathryn was going to get this. She richly deserves it,” Cameron said.
The double triumph of Avatar’s Golden Globes for best director and picture establish it as the clear favorite for the Academy Awards. While Avatar will likely not match the number of Oscar nominations or awards achieved by Cameron’s last feature film, Titanic, Avatar may well result in back-to-back best film and director Oscars for Cameron (if a lacuna of a dozen years can still be called back to back).
Powering Avatar’s sense of inevitability is the film’s, yes, titanic box-office performance. This past weekend Avatar ruled domestic and global box office for its fifth straight week, picking up steam and toppling records that seemed untouchable just earlier this month. Avatar is poised to take the #1 global spot from Titanic before long, and could push Titanic to #2 domestically as well. After the irrelevance of last year’s Oscar race, which snubbed popular and critical favorites like Wall-E and The Dark Knight while lavishing attention on films that neither audiences nor critics were crazy about (e.g., Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Doubt), the Academy may well be ready to embrace a popular and critical front-runner.
In spite of all the hype, critical praise for Avatar has been tempered by acknowledgments of its weaknesses, including its derivative storyline, cardboard characters and lame dialogue. One critic spoke for many (including me) when he wrote, “Is it a great movie? Maybe not. But it is a great step forward in moviemaking.”
Curiously, similar sentiments recently expressed in L’Osservatore Romano and on Vatican Radio have attracted rather prickly mainstream media coverage.
“Unlike much of the world, the Vatican is not awed by the film ‘Avatar’” was the lede on a recent AP story that went on to note that the film received “lukewarm reviews by both the Vatican newspaper and its radio station, which say the movie is simplistic in its plot is superficial in its eco-message, despite groundbreaking visual effects.” Owen Gleiberman wrote more or less the same thing in Entertainment Weekly, but never mind.
Looking a bit closer, the Christian Science Monitor wondered in a recent headline, “Why is Vatican paper reviewing Avatar, the Simpsons?” Noting significant shifts in editorial policy under new editor in chief Giovanni Maria Vian, the story called the Avatar review “part of L’Osservatore Romano’s efforts to shrug off its previously staid, stuffy image and strike a more contemporary tone.”
In other recent Avatar news, a CNN.com story talked about what could be called “post-Avatar depression” among extreme fans lamenting the “intangibility” of Cameron’s fantasy world. For more, see “Avatar and the Meaning of Life.”
Was I wrong to contend, as I did recently in a response to a reader, that “Unlike Star Wars and The Matrix, Avatar doesn’t strike me as a film likely to burrow deep into the collective consciousness”? A recent story at CNN.com, “Audiences Experience ‘Avatar’ Blues,” at least raises questions about that assessment. Some highlights:
James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle “Avatar” may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.
On the fan forum site “Avatar Forums,” a topic thread entitled “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible,” has received more than 1,000 posts from people experiencing depression and fans trying to help them cope. …
“Ever since I went to see ‘Avatar’ I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them. I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it,” [a reader] posted. “I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and the everything is the same as in ‘Avatar.’ ”
The comments go on, one sadder than the last. It’s like the obssessive, distracted Twilight Moms phenomenon all over again. In my New Moon article I commented that where Dan Brown fans got to flock to Rome and Paris, Twilight obsessives were stuck with rainy Forks, Washington. But what if you’re an Avatar obsessive? There’s literally nowhere to go.
About one thing, at any rate, I was certainly wrong: It was not yet clear, when I wrote that response, just how titanic Avatar’s box-office performance would prove to be over time. Even with higher 3-D ticket prices, I would never have predicted that Avatar stood a chance of sinking Titanic’s domestic and overseas box-office records — but it’s looking like it does now. There’s no doubt about it: Cameron is the king of the world (or even the emperor of the universe, as one critic half-snarked).
Even so, I continue to be skeptical that Jake Sully, Neytiri, Dr. Grace Augustine and evil military what’s-his-face, Colonel Quaritch (I had to look it up) are colonizing viewers’ imaginations like Luke, Leia, Han and Darth Vader, or Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and Agent Smith. On the other hand, I also wrote:
There are self-proclaimed “Jedis” today who make “the Force” an actual religion; I don’t see a lot of people declaring themselves “Na’vi” or getting passionate about “Eywa.” (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of people who see this film even two or three times wouldn’t be able to tell you afterward who “Eywa” was even if you supplied the name.)
Does the obsessive fan comment posted above, about wanting to be a Na’vi badly enough to entertain thoughts of suicide in the forlorn hope of being reincarnated in a world like Pandora, disprove my optimism? Even if it doesn’t, even if there’s a meaningful distinction to be drawn (and I think there may be), it’s still depressingly close to what I thought so improbable. It’s hard to fathom that kind of existential or imaginative alienation from the real world.
I’m pleased to note that National Catholic Register, for which I have been writing on film since 2003, has launched a completely revamped website at NCRegister.com.
The new site isn’t just a redesign of the old site, which was originally based on the print edition and was last revamped in 2008 with a daily blog. The new site goes well beyond the print edition, and includes a whole lineup of shiny new blogs by longtime Catholic bloggers and others, including my friends Jimmy Akin and Mark Shea, my old publisher Tom Hoopes — and yours truly. Yes, I’m now blogging twice a week at NCRegister.com, as well as here at Decent Films whenever I get the chance.
There’s a lot of worthwhile content free to all at the Register site, as well as a wealth of content for subscribers only. The down side is that the print edition has cut back from weekly to biweekly, which means I’ll probably be writing fewer full-length reviews for the Register for the foreseeable future.
On the up side, your subscription dollar now gets you full access to NCRegister.com subscriber-only content for twice as long. (If you don’t subscribe, you can do so online. (And I’m not just saying that because it’s my paper: I was a Register subscriber long before I was a Register columnist.)
In any case, check out the new site.
This week’s DVD and Blu-ray releases include noteworthy new editions of a pair of films worth highlighting: The Reluctant Saint, newly available from Ignatius Press, and Fellini’s 8½, now on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
Starring Maximilian Schell as Saint Joseph of Cupertino, The Reluctant Saint has long been popular among Catholics on VHS, but the new DVD edition restores the coda missing from the VHS copy (the “lost ending,” as a product blurb calls it; see my essay for more about this coda and its deletion).
The new Ignatius DVD comes with a 16-page booklet that includes my essay on the film and a biographical essay on St. Joseph by historian and journalist Sandra Miesel. (I’ve never met Sandra, though we did have this exchange a year or two ago over The Dark Knight.)
I first saw The Reluctant Saint something like 18 years ago in Philadelphia. I enjoyed it at the time, but on rewatching it recently I found it to be a more sensitive and enjoyable film than I remembered.
P.S. At first glance it might not appear that The Reluctant Saint and 8½ have anything in common, but they do: Filmed in Italy within a year of one another, they were both scored by the Italian composer Nino Rota.
One of the top questions I’m getting about the new Decent Films is how I’m going to be using the blog. My hope is that the blogging format will allow me to be flexible: to post short movie reviews and commentary, notes on DVD releases, and perhaps occasional personal tidbits of the sort that I have often posted in the past at my friend Jimmy Akin’s blog — though generally, I think, with a film-centric focus here. (I won’t be blogging on apologetics and such here at Decent Films.)
For example, in this post I’m stepping out of my normal Decent Films role as a film critic to share a short film I made, just a few days ago. It’s not my very first stab at movie-making (that would be a short, unfinished Super-8 project I began shooting at the age of ten or twelve), but it’s perhaps my first stab at a video that may be of general interest to a sizable number of viewers — not because of my cinematic skills, but because of the highly photogenic subject. As such, it’s my first venture into YouTube.
The video was shot on my iPhone at St. Lucy’s Church in Newark, New Jersey, about ten minutes from my home. St. Lucy’s isn’t our home parish, but our family attends weekday Mass there on a fairly regular basis.
The church has a side chapel dedicated to St. Gerard that is notable for at least two reasons. First, it’s the National Shrine of St. Gerard, patron saint of motherhood and childbirth. Second, every year at Advent and Christmas season, the St. Gerard chapel celebrates the greatest birth in history with a Nativity display that is one of a kind, to say the least.
The video is a single shot lasting just under five minutes. Being shot on a handheld iPhone, it’s naturally a bit shaky. Unfortunately I just missed capturing the congregation singing “Silent Night” in the background (in Spanish!), so I’ve tried to use YouTube’s AudioSwap functionality to add a reasonably appropriate background. AudioSwap seems to be buggy, though, so I’m not sure which audio track you’ll hear. (It seemed to work the first time, but then the original soundtrack apparently came back, so I’ve done it twice now. I’m still not sure it’s taken.)
As I shot it, St. Lucy’s Nativity display initially looks like a typical creche scene like you might find in countless churches at Christmastime, but is slowly revealed to be something more remarkable. Every year the people at St. Lucy’s do it a bit differently; perhaps next year I’ll find a way to shoot it again with better equipment. Anyway, here it is, just under the wire for the twelfth day of Christmas.
If you can’t see the embedded video below, you can watch it at YouTube. Enjoy!
Has it really been ten years?
Not quite, perhaps. The earliest roots of Decent Films go back earlier, to some film scribblings I did in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until about mid-2000 that I launched the very first version of the Decent Films Guide, a modest collection of some 35 capsule reviews that provided the occasion and excuse for me to take my first baby steps into HTML. A whimsical graphical interface provided a fig leaf to the paucity of the content — the design probably called for almost as many images as there were reviews — but it made the site fun, I think. Anyway, I enjoyed the challenge of building it, and the challenge, in the ensuing months, of enriching the content behind the interface.
By mid-2001 I had outgrown the original site, both in terms of volume and Web development skills, and in September I launched a more robust redesign that served fairly well for the next few years. Eventually, my content outgrew my ability to manage it from a technical perspective — permanently. About five years ago, I sought — and received — help from a generous reader and Web developer named Simeon with more back-end chops than I. He did the back-end magic, I did the front-end design, and Decent Films was reborn, in more or less the form it’s been until now.
The 2010 edition Decent Films Guide is the most ambitious yet. In some ways, it fulfills the promise of what I had hoped to do in 2005 but wasn’t initially able to. As always, I did the design myself, and coded the HTML and CSS by hand, and piled Simeon’s plate high with wish-list items and proposed enhancements, which he has labored mightily in bringing to fruition.
The site as it is now is still a work in progress, with a few bugs in the process of being worked out, but enough of the pieces are in place to make it a major advance over the previous iteration of the site that has now been retired. What’s new about the new Decent Films? Here are some highlights:
- Design. In my opinion, the new site just looks about a thousand percent sweeter than the old site. Layout, fonts, colors, everything looks better — so much so that I have to admit for weeks I’ve found it hard to look at the “old” site. (More about this later.)
- Navigation and options. The new site offers two top nav bars, one for global site content (Home, Search, About, Links, Contact) and another for filtering content (Recent, In Theaters, DVD, Reviews, Blog, Mail). In Theaters is a new page offering blurbs and ratings for all reviewed titles currently in theaters.
- Blog. There is now a Decent Films Blog, and you’re reading the inaugural post. More to come! (No blog comments, yet. I’ll keep you, um, posted.)
- RSS feed. It’s been a long time coming! Really there was no excuse for not leveraging RSS back in 2005. Simeon set up the site for it, and I always meant to take advantage of it, but somehow or other I never got around to it. With apologies to those who asked about it for so long, it’s finally here.
- Content groups. This is the update I’m most excited about. For a look at how it works, scroll down to the bottom of the review of Angels & Demons. Right there on the page are related mail items from Decent Films Mail as well as previews of related reviews and articles.
- More dynamic content. For those interested in back-end stuff, the Mail section, previously a collection of flat files, is now dynamic (a prerequisite to being able to call mail items from related reviews). The DVD section, often sadly neglected in the past because it was a hard-to-maintain flat file, is now dynamic content that should be easier to keep up to date (once a few technical details are worked out; it’s still a work in progress).
- Improved Amazon links. Obviously, I want the Amazon links to be as helpful as possible, in part because every Amazon purchase made via links on this site helps support Decent Films. In the past, through, my Amazon linkage has been spotty. So far I’ve gone through every single A-range review (A-plus to A-minus) and made sure that there are up-to-date Amazon links for every highly recommended movie. (I’ll work on the B’s next, and maybe hit some of the C-pluses. I don’t put Amazon links for anything rated C or below, since if I can’t even lean slightly positive on a movie, I don’t want to help you buy it or to profit from your doing so.)
- New review ratings/info sidebar. Ratings, content advisory and filmmaker/studio info are now presented in a sidebar that I hope offers various advantages over previous ways of organizing this information, which in the earliest designs had a tendency to take over the review and more recently has been a bit sprawled out and scattered. Now it’s compact and organized, prominent but not obstructive. It’s the best solution yet, I think.
- Lots of corrections. Over the last month or two I’ve gone over my content and made innumerable small corrections — nothing huge, but hopefully it will make a difference. (I still want to hear from you if you catch anything that needs to be fixed! (Disagreeing with my review of 3:10 to Yuma or Where the Wild Things Are does not count as catching something that needs to be fixed. Not that I don’t want to hear from you anyway!)
This is a major advance over the old “See also” links, both because there is richer content and because it’s semi-dynamic so I don’t have to add all the links manually. (I say “semi-dynamic” because the connections are made by me, not by software — a very good thing in my opinion. It means I’ve put in a lot of work creating content groups, and will continue to spend time managing it, but with a lot less effort and a lot more payoff than was possible before.)
Readers who have often written to me to alert me to linking errors on the homepage will be glad to know that these, too, will no longer be coded by hand. No more clicking on The Princess and the Frog and wondering whether you might find yourself reading the review for 2012!
In most cases, Amazon links (for movies in the A range) are dynamic, meaning that you’ll get all editions of a given film — DVD, Blu-ray, single disc, special edition, etc. In some cases I target a single edition that is (I think) the one right edition to get.
Design and other enhancements include:
- A true three-column layout with right and left columns that actually go to the footer (easier on the eye for long pieces).
- A four-column home page with feeds for Recently Added and DVD & Blu-ray as well as a dedicated Spotlight feature.
- Improved color scheme. Frankly, I agree with the reader who wrote some five years back to object (mildly) that the 2005 color scheme was too chilly. The new palatte is more in line with Decent Films’ previous color schemes, and makes the whole site nicer to look at. I’m particularly happy with the new sepia duotone version of the banner collage, which is not only visually clearer than its blue predecessor, but warmer, more natural-looking and sort of old-movie-ish.
- Single-match search defaulting. Type “Ponyo” in the search field and you go right to the review — no need to click the one resulting match and confirm that, yes, you wanted Ponyo.
- Improved HTML and CSS. This may not mean much to anyone but me, but it makes me happy that my markup is cleaner and more semantic than it used to be.
There’s probably more, but that’s what I’m thinking of at the moment. Like I said, it’s still a work in progress, and I hope that Simeon and I will continue to roll out small enhancements over the next few weeks and months. In the meantime, I’d like to know what you think of our efforts so far.
This latest exercise in site renovation has been an enormously invigorating and exciting; it’s also been humbling. Looking over ten years’ worth of writing has left me at turns pleased and dissatisfied, sometimes delighted, too often chagrined. There is so much room for improvement, so much to be done.
Every revamping of Decent Films has been a renewed impetus to write more and (hopefully) better — not least because my productivity always dips while I'm knee-deep in the renovation process, and I feel the need to make up for lost time. In particular, I hope that the new blog will offer me an opportunity to update more, to write more freely, and in particular to write frequent shorter pieces rather than always laboring long over one lengthy one. (Not that I will ever stop writing long, long pieces … y’all know me better than that by now.)
Obviously, I owe Simeon an immense debt of thanks — as does every reader who enjoys the site for what it has been over the last five years and is now becoming. I’ve done what I can to make Decent Films interesting to read and pretty to look at, but Simeon breathed the breath of content-management life into my empty templates, fielding my ever more-demanding wish list of proposed enhancements, bells and whistles, and making it all happen. Now, once again, Decent Films feels like too much site for what could be more and better content. If in the coming months and years I succeed in altering that equation, no small part of the credit will belong to Simeon.
While I’m on the subject, we are also deeply indebted to Mrs. Decent Films, the amazing and heroic Suzanne, homeschooling mother of six and the rock of support without which this site would not be possible. For her active support, encouragement and enthusiasm for my work, for offering a first response to nearly every word I write, for giving me up to regular screenings and allowing my stack of year-end screeners and DVDs to dominate our evenings every December and January, she deserves the gratitude of anyone who appreciates my work. Not incidentally, she also holds the world together while I watch movies and write. (On rare occasions she’s even written or co-written a few reviews; check them out.)
Finally, I want to extend my deepest gratitude to you, my readers over the last ten years or any subset thereof: Catholics and Protestants, Christians and non-Christians, agnostics and atheists. Thanks for reading, for caring, for thinking it over, for agreeing and disagreeing. I am humbled and honored by your interest and engagement, your thoughtful criticism and moral support, your just being out there reading. I hope to continue to repay your interest for years to come, and, God willing, to do better in the next ten years than I have in the last. Take a look around and let me know what you think.
The beginning, again.