Decent Films Blog
Snow White and the Huntsman in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Prometheus in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Moonrise Kingdom in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
This Friday, April 13 I'll be appearing on the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” (6pm–7pm EDT).
Patrick Coffin and I will be discussing recent and upcoming films including Brave, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Prometheus, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, Snow White and the Huntsman and more. Listen live!
It’s been too long since I’ve blogged any great critical lines that made me wish I had written them, but I couldn’t resist the opening line of J. R. Jones’s review of Prometheus — arguably the best possible opening sentence in a Prometheus review…
The plot of this Alien prequel was a carefully guarded secret — so carefully guarded, in fact, that not even the movie reveals it.
Last week I screened Pixar’s new movie Brave with my oldest daughter Sarah. I’m still under embargo and can’t tell you what I thought of the film until next week — but I can tell you this much.
Reviews from the Hollywood trade journals (Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, etc.) and perhaps other sources are starting to appear … and they all freely reveal a key second-act plot twist that I went into Brave not knowing. And I’m sure that more reviews, as they come out, will do the same.
What these reviews treat as basic background information came as a complete surprise to me — a surprise I’m grateful for. It’s not in the trailers, which mostly focus on the first act, culimating in an archery tournament. It’s what happens after that, as the story moves into the second act, that makes Brave the film that it is.
Unfortunately, the twist in question is out there in other ways … and I gather lots of kids already know about it. I understand it’s on the packaging for Brave-related toys in toy stores. Kids who go into Brave knowing what’s going to happen may never know how they’ve been short-changed … but those lucky kids (and adults) who go in unspoiled will have a more magical experience.
I admit that as a critic I tend to be fastidious about spoilers (particularly, I confess, when I like the film, but I try to be as fair as I can to every film whether I like it or not). A friend of mine has long been struck by the fact that in reviewing Pixar’s Up I wouldn’t even use the word “balloons,” even though it was all over the marketing. My reasoning was: Why should I mention it? If you know, you don’t need me to tell you — and if you don’t, why should I deprive you of the thrill of discovery?
Perhaps it goes back to an experience in childhood.
Many Star Wars fans my age remember the shock of that iconic moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader revealed the secret of Luke’s parentage. I remember the moment — but, alas, I wasn’t shocked.
I saw The Empire Strikes Back early in its run, possibly on opening weekend. Yet I had been spoiled on the biggest movie revelation of my youth by a brief synopsis of the film that inexpicably appeared in some magazine or circular that my mother had. And that wasn’t the only moment in the movie I was spoiled on.
I knew that Obi-Wan would appear to Luke on Hoth. I knew that the strange green swamp gnome who promised to bring Luke to Yoda was Yoda. I knew that Luke would lose his hand in the saber battle with Vader. One thing that did catch me off-guard was Harrison Ford’s famously ad-libbed response to Leia’s declaration of love (“I know”). The synosis I read (following the original script, I suppose) had Han trying to grin and saying, “Just remember that, Leia, because I’ll be back.”
It was my first experience being spoiled … and I didn’t like it.
On some level I learned that day that there is something special about seeing a movie for the first time.
I don’t mean only big plot twists or revelations à la The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense, as if the whole point of watching a movie were to be fooled. If that were the case, there would be little point in watching movies more than once.
I mean that a first encounter with a worthwhile film is an act of discovery — and there is a right way and a wrong way to discover what a movie has to offer. The right way is by watching the movie.
After you’ve seen it, of course, a movie can no longer surprise you in the same way, and it remains to be seen whether it can stand up to repeated viewings. A movie with enduring value doesn’t need the element of surprise to be worthwhile. But there is a right way and a wrong way to discover what a movie has to offer — and the right way is by watching the movie.
When Return of the Jedi came out three years later, I made sure I saw it that first weekend, and my main memories of that first screening are the thrill of discovery at key points — when Luke turns the tables on Jabba from the very edge of the plank; Obi-Wan’s revelation about Luke and Leia’s relationship; and of course the redemption of Darth Vader. That was the way to watch that film.
I know not everyone feels the same way. Some people like to fill their heads with critical opinions before they go into a film. That seems crazy to me — the best way to short-circuit one’s ability to receive a film that I can imagine. Certainly after I see a film I’m eager to engage critical opinions across the board — positive, negative and in between — to challenge and sharpen my initial response. But the last thing I want in my head while watching a film for the first time is a lot of other people’s ideas about it.
At any rate, I try to write reviews that work for readers whether or not they’ve seen the film. If they haven’t, I try not to spoil it; if they have, I try to provide context and insight that enriches their response to the film, whether positive or negative.
At any rate, rest assured that my review of Brave, when it appears next week, will not spell out the second-act twist.
How do you feel about spoilers? Do you care at all? Do you like to read reviews before or after you see films? Do you have a spoiler-related trauma in your past? Or something you were glad to know about a film going in? Let me know in the combox at NCRegister.com.
For Greater Glory in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Dark Shadows in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
The Avengers in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Tune into EWTN this Thursday, May 31, when I'll be on “The World Over Live” with Raymond Arroyo (8:00pm EDT). Raymond and I will be discussing the new Cristero war drama For Greater Glory, how the film's theme of religious freedom relates to current events, the state of faith-based film productions and much more. (Watch EWTN live)
Then be sure to watch “Reel Faith” on Friday, June 1 (8:00pm EDT) for a special all-For Greater Glory episode featuring filmmaker episodes as well as reviews of the film from David DiCerto and me. (Watch NET live)
This Top 5 list first appeared in the May 2012 issue of Catholic Digest.
Fairy tales are everywhere these days, from the small-screen “Once Upon a Time” and “Grimm” to this year’s dueling Snow White films, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman (opening this week). This double dose of Snow White is more than reason enough to fill in one of the more notable absences in my reviews, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — though that leaves me with one more review to write to round out my picks for the top five fairy-tale films of all time, listed below in alphabetical order. (No promises, but I’ll try to get to the remaining review sometime soon.)
Beauty and the Beast [La Belle et la bête] (1946)Honorable mention to Disney’s better-known animated musical version, a justly celebrated masterpiece — but Jean Cocteau’s dreamlike French-language adaptation is the truest and richest screen adaptation of the story.
The Princess Bride (1988)One of the most oft-quoted movies of a generation, Rob Reiner’s beloved swashbuckling tale of a beautiful princess, a noble pirate and a black-hearted prince is one of those rare satiric gems, like The Court Jester and Galaxy Quest, that doesn’t just send up a genre, but honors it at the same time.
- Enchanted and its ilk, still casting a potent spell.
Star Wars (1977)An orphaned hero meets a bearded, robed wizard, gains a magic sword, ventures into a dark fortress and rescues an imprisoned princess. George Lucas’s groundbreaking blockbuster updated the trappings, but the charm of this space-age fairy tale is inseparable from its innocent sense of wonder and unironic vision of good and evil.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)The quintessentially American fairy tale, MGM’s joyous musical take on L. Frank Baum’s story ranks among our earliest and most defining experiences of wonder and fear, of fairy-tale joys and terrors, of the lure of the exotic and the comfort of home.
Battleship in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” review.
The summer 2012 season of “Reel Faith” begins this Friday, May 25 at 8:00pm EDT. David DiCerto and I kick off the new season with The Avengers, Men in Black 3 and Battleship. And because Battleship has us in a Liam Neeson mood, Father Lauder’s “Movie with a Message” is Les Misérables (1998). Watch online (unless you have CableVision or Time Warner cable).
Also, be sure to tune in next week for a special episode dedicated to For Greater Glory, with actor interviews as well as our take on the film. That episode will air on Friday, June 1, the day For Greater Glory opens.
This Top 5 list first appeared in the May 2012 issue of Christianity Today.
In my Avengers review I wrote, “If The Avengers isn’t necessarily the best superhero movie ever made, it is unquestionably the most superhero movie ever made.“ That, of course, raises the question: What is the best superhero movie ever made?
While I’m not prepared to offer a single answer to that question, here in alphabetical order are my all-time top 5 superhero movies. Beyond that, if you’d like to explore other reviews of past superhero and comic-book movies, check out the superhero-related tags below.
The Dark Knight (2008)Batman Begins was arguably the best cinematic superhero origin story ever, and this sprawling, nightmarish sequel pushes the newly minted hero to his limits and beyond against the incalculable evil of Heath Ledger’s chilling Joker. Though verging on nihilism, the film keeps a tenuous grip on hope.
The Incredibles (2004)Among the best family films as well as superhero films, Pixar’s tale of an underground family of supers in an age of mediocrity is a bold, funny, fast and furious action movie that makes room for remarkably sophisticated social commentary, domestic wisdom and moral rigor.
The Mark of Zorro (1940)Douglas Fairbanks did unmatchable stunts in the silent 1920 Mark of Zorro, and the 1998 Mask of Zorro is a surprisingly effective homage. Guy Williams, from Disney’s 1950s serial, is the most beloved Zorro. But the best Zorro movie is this Golden-Age origin story starring Tyrone Powers — witty, romantic, funny and thrilling.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)Leave the grit and angst to the Dark Knight: Spider-Man is a wisecracking, freewheeling adventurer, and this superior sequel is the most rollicking, flat-out comic-bookiest superhero movie ever. Alfred Molina invests Dr. Octopus with unexpected humanity, and the set pieces, above all the train sequence, are genre standouts.
Superman (1978)The first great comic-book movie, Superman blends portentous 2001-style mythmaking and Adam West “Batman”-style camp, embracing the iconic hero’s implicit christological echoes while nostalgically honoring the ideals of a more innocent time. John Williams’s heroic score is vital; he never wrote a theme more crucial to a film’s success.
This Friday, April 13 I'll be appearing on the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” (6pm–7pm EDT).
Guest host Tom Price and I will be discussing recent and upcoming films including The Avengers, The Pirates: Band of Misfits, Chimpanzee and more. Listen live!
The Pirates! Band of Misfits / In an Adventure with Scientists! in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Cabin in the Woods in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Chimpanzee in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
The Hunger Games in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
This Friday, April 13 I'll be appearing on the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” (6pm–7pm EDT).
Patrick Coffin and I will be discussing recent and upcoming films including The Three Stooges, The Hunger Games, We Have a Pope, The Kid with a Bike, Wrath of the Titans, Mirror Mirror and more. Listen live!
Do we have a pope? Do we even have a movie?
The premise for Nanni Moretti’s lightweight comedy/drama Habemus Papam or We Have a Pope is an intriguing one: What if a newly elected pope had a panic attack after accepting his election, feeling overwhelmed and unable to lead, or even to appear at the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and give his first Urbi et Orbi blessing, and retreated into the depths of the Apostolic Palace?
I’m not talking about a momentary emotional breakdown. The election process provides for that: Adjacent to the Sistine Chapel is the Room of Tears, to which the the newly elected pope retreats after accepting his election in order to don the white papal robes for the first time, be alone with God, collect his thoughts, and freak out as necessary before composing himself and preparing for his first public appearance as pope.
I’m talking about an emotional paralysis lasting days, weeks or even longer. In the film, the newly elected pope, a surprise choice named Cardinal Melville, accepts his election in a momentary daze while his fellow cardinals regale him with spontaneous Gregorian chant, but then loses it completely just after the cardinal protodeacon (who introduces the new pope) has made the “Habemus papam” (“We have a pope”) proclamation, but before the new pope’s name has been announced.
What then? What indeed? The new pope says he needs “more time.” How much more? Hours become days become weeks. Clearly, the conclave chose the wrong man … but what happens as a result? How should fallout from the mistake be handled?
In my review I discuss some of the complications that follow in the film, as well as some of the things that ought to follow. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t explore the consequences of its premise with much imagination. As a result, I’m left feeling that the original question is more interesting than any of the movie’s half-baked riffing.
What ought to happen in a situation like this? A few obvious considerations from my review:
Obviously, the pope should pray — and his colleagues should pray, and urge him to pray — that God give him grace and guidance to do what he ought. If he believes he is called to the papacy, he should disregard his feelings and, well, pope up. Or, if he’s convinced beyond question that he can’t do it, he should resign — immediately and quietly — and let the conclave elect a new successor.
There are other potential considerations. First, was the pope’s acceptance of his election deliberate and free? Was he too stunned to know what he was saying? Or might he perhaps have felt somehow coerced by his fellow cardinals unexpectedly breaking out into Gregorian chant? If his acceptance was not deliberate and free, then he isn’t the pope.
On the other hand, the determination that the pope’s acceptance was not free cannot be made on the pope’s behalf by someone else. Either he must come to that conclusion himself, or he must be presumed to be the pope.
Likewise, the decision to resign would have to be the pope’s own decision. The Church has no mechanism for deposing a living pope unless such arrangements have been made in advance by that very pope himself. For example, Pope Pius XII provided that if he were ever unable to exercise his papal office -- for example, if he were captured by Nazis, as the Third Reich was later revealed to have actively considered, or if he descended into dementia -- he would be considered to have resigned, and a new pope could be elected.
However, popes cannot be bound by their predecessors in this regard, so any such arrangements must be made by each pope for his own reign. As long as a legitimately elected pope has made no such provision, he cannot be deposed. And if he also refuses to lead, as Melville does, then the Church would be in a painful situation.
The Church could continue to function in spite of the pope’s self-imposed inaction, more or less as it does in an interregnum period between papacies. Even in his impaired state, the bishop of Rome would continue to function as a visible sign of the Church’s unity, and Catholic churches around the world would include the pope in the prayers at Mass, especially the last part of the Te Igitur, as a crucial expression of their Catholic unity. (How crucial? Omission of this prayer is prima facie evidence of schism.)
Happily, the situation in the film doesn’t come to that extreme, though the resolution is very badly handled in a way guaranteed to cause maximum consternation and confusion to the faithful. As a result, the film ultimately feels like a waste of time.
We Have a Pope in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
The Kid with a Bike in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
21 Jump Street in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
Wrath of the Titans in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
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Titanic is like a stage where God says to you, “You have two hours to play out the rest of your life. What will you be? Will you be a hero? Will you be a coward?”
Those words, uttered by Titanic actor Bill Paxton in James Cameron’s other film about the Titanic, the undersea documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, are about as appropriate a prelude to one of my grievances with Cameron’s mega-hit as anything.
It is a moral crime that Cameron’s film, which has sadly become the definitive retelling of the story for our generation, is so stunted in its depiction of the range of human moral behavior in times of crisis. Titanic highlights and indeed exaggerates the cowardice, the folly, the dereliction of duty, while ignoring the heroism, the nobility, the self-sacrifice which is also an integral part of the story. Yes, Cameron allows for the possibility of heroism in the name of romantic love, self-sacrifice for one’s best beloved — but not heroism for strangers, or in the name of duty.
Saving the Titanic, a docudrama airing this month on PBS, sheds light on an untold page from the heroic side of the ledger. Combining traditional documentary with speculative historical dramatization, it highlights the story of the engineering crew, firemen, electricians and stokers who labored below decks to keep power flowing to pumps and lifeboat winches, first hoping to save the ship and then striving to delay the inevitable as long as possible to save as many lives as possible.
Even if you’ve already seen a number of Titanic presentations, Saving the Titanic is likely to surprise you a few times. For example, I hadn’t known about the spontaneous coal fire, fueled by cheap coal purchased during a coal strike, which damaged the hull days prior to the iceberg collision, contributing to the disaster.
Saving the Titanic is certainly not a complete documentary look at the disaster as a whole. Its interests are with the crew below decks, not with the passengers or senior officers. Still, as a contribution to the screen record of Titanic material, it’s a valuable contribution and well worth catching. Worth noting are a couple of moments of matter-of-fact Christian spirituality, including a familiar grace before meals and a crew member praying a rosary during the disaster.
Saving the Titanic premieres on Sunday, April 1 at 10pm ET, with encore presentations scheduled for Friday, April 6, at 10:30pm, Tuesday, April 10, at 9:00pm ET and Saturday, April 14, at 9:00pm ET. Check local listings.
John Carter in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
The Lorax in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
The Secret World of Arrietty in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
Once a month Patrick Coffin of “Catholic Answers Live!” and I talk about movies for an hour that never seems quite long enough for all the films we want to talk about. So this month, we’re taking two hours! Friday on “Catholic Answers Live!” it’s all Decent Films, all the time, from 6pm–8pm EST (3pm–5pm PST).
On the agenda for this month’s show: Andrew Stanton’s John Carter and its influence on the world of science fiction and pulp adventure; Act of Valor; The Lorax; The Secret World of Arrietty and much more. Listen live!