Decent Films Blog
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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.