Decent Films Blog
This weekend Disney’s latter-day classic Beauty and the Beast returns to theaters in a 3D converted version. I was looking forward to taking the whole family to last weekend’s 3D screening, but life got in the way. As for the film itself, I have nothing to add to my recent review; here it is.
Tuesday, 1/10: This afternoon I’ll be on Catholic radio twice in the 5 o’clock hour (EST) discussing a pair of movies with very Catholic themes (a comment that should not be taken as an endorsement!).
Then around 5:35pm I’ll be on Ave Maria Radio’s Kresta in the Afternoon talking about the home video release of There Be Dragons, starring Charlie Cox as St. Josemaria Escriva. (Al’s got copies to give away, so if you want to see the film, listen live.)
Recognition and praise are always appreciated, but this month’s shout-out from Image Journal naming me their Artist of the Month for January 2012 is especially gratifying. They have some thoughtful comments about my film writing, both with respect to craft and content, and the guy they’re describing sounds to me like the guy I try to be. Suz says they nailed me. What do you think?
The honor comes three months after a piece I wrote for Image Journal, “A House Divided,” about households and houses in crisis in family fantasy films. It’s a piece I’m particularly pleased with, bringing together my thoughts about broken family films in general and imaginative connections I’ve been thinking about for years in films ranging from The Wizard of Oz to E.T. to Pixar’s Up, which in some ways is a kind of pinnacle or climax for the themes in question. Check out the essay here at Decent Films or at Image Journal.
Olivia Hussey as the Virgin Mary in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”
Following up on my “Still Christmas” post on Advent and Christmas family traditions, Christmas movies are an important tradition in many households. For me, Christmas movies are an especially important way of marking the continuing Christmas season. In general, I would rather watch Christmas movies with my kids after Christmas day, rather than before, as a way of celebrating the Christmas season.
The one Christmas classic I’d really like to watch before Christmas is, alas, one that hasn’t been made yet. I mean a Christmas classic about the real meaning of Christmas, the birth of the Lord Jesus. There have been movies made about this, notably The Nativity Story, but nothing that rises to real classic status. (For more on The Nativity Story’s artistic and theological merits and limitations, see my various pieces at Decent Films.)
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth watching on the real meaning of Christmas. In particular, I like to watch the first hour or so of Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth with my family around Christmastime. Praised by Pope Paul VI as “an example of a fine use that can be made of the new ways of communication that God is offering man,” Jesus of Nazareth honors both the Jewish context in which Jesus was born and the Catholic sensibility that has celebrated Him for 2000 years.
In particular, Olivia Hussey is an iconic Virgin Mary, and the numinous Annunciation scene is the best I’ve ever seen. Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great has a wonderful scene offering an outside perspective on Judaism and the phenomena of prophecy and Messianic hope. There are down sides, most annoyingly the Magi’s avoidance of Herod’s court, and Herod fretting about the same. And you have to be willing to deal with Mary suffering birth pangs (for more, see my essay on Catholic teaching and The Nativity Story, which raises the same issue). Overall, though, it’s the best we have so far.
All Advent long, observant Catholics and other Christians hold the line against premature Christmas, holding off on decking the halls and singing Christmas carols during what is meant to be a time of preparation.
Now, as the world is busily dismantling what’s left of its Christmas trappings, it’s time for Christians to double down on the continued celebration of the Christmas season, which continues through the Christmas Octave (to January 1, the eighth day after Christmas, and thus the day of Jesus’ circumcision, celebrated as the feast of Mary the Mother of God) until after Advent to the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. (This year that means that Christmas runs through January 9, and ordinary time returns on January 10.)
This is especially important for families with young children, I think, to instill in them a proper sense of liturgical time at an early age.
As far as the larger culture goes, the notion of the Christmas season would seem to be a lost battle. (Suz commented recently how depressing it was to get an “After Christmas Sale” catalog before Christmas actually arrived: “It’s like it’s never actually Christmas!”)
Within our families and churches, though, we can sustain a culture of resistance. How do we do this?
Here’s my 30-second take on War Horse.
Here’s my 30-second take on The Adventures of Tintin.
Here’s my 30-second take on The Artist.
Here’s my 30-second take on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
I usually stay far away from trailers. I like to experience movies as cold as possible. But this is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, and my fine principles have failed me. The film itself is still a year off … and I can’t wait that long to satisfy my curiosity. Have a look:
I think it looks fantastic, for the most part. Of course it’s a trailer, and so the material has been carefully selected, but I love much of what we see here.
One of the best things about the trailer is the Dwarves’ song about the lost gold, and the way the trailer plays it up, using it to score other scenes. As my friend Peter Chattaway pointed out at ArtsAndFaith.com, most of the singing shot for The Lord of the Rings was relegated to the Extended Editions or even to deleted scenes, so it’s encouraging to see this evocative song given such prominence. When I read Tolkien to my kids, I love making up melodies for the songs (sometimes more successfully than other times). This melody has exactly the air of somber longing that I go for in my rendition of the Dwarves’ song. I can’t wait to hear the words “We must away ere break of day / To seek the pale enchanted gold.”
Likewise, although we see some action here, the trailer seems intended to reassure fans that The Hobbit honors the intimacy and smaller scale of Tolkien’s book, that it hasn’t been amped up to bone-crushing Return of the King levels. The bucolic Shire scenes early in The Fellowship of the Ring remain among the most successful elements in the film trilogy, and the later chapters sometimes seem to me to stumble over the very ambition of the overwrought action.
Some people have suggested that Jackson and company were just working too hard toward the end of The Lord of the Rings, and made mistakes in judgment due to exhaustion. If so, I hope the rest and the smaller scale of this project pay off in a surer hand to the end. (Please, please, no skullvalanche-level tonal atrocities, no drinking-game bathos or video-game culture allusions, no staff-shattering sacrileges. See the Extended Edition notes in my Return of the King review if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
The shot of one dwarf wrapped in webs, of course, hints at one of the more striking connections between The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: a forest full of Shelob-like spiders, smaller perhaps but in much greater numbers. It’s hard to imagine them talking in Jackson’s version, or Bilbo taunting them in the same way with his “Attercop! Attercop” song—although a lot of people will be unhappy if they omit the “Attercop” business entirely.)
As young Bilbo, Martin Freeman has struck me from the outset as a canny choice to replace Ian Holm—and from what we see here that seems confirmed. Maybe if they’d shot The Hobbit right after The Lord of the Rings they could have done up Ian Holm like they did for the brief flashback where he finds the Ring, but a few years out that no longer seemed possible.
Thankfully, Gandalf’s age isn’t an issue, and it’s just wonderful to see Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey again. (McKellen had some great moments as Gandalf the White too, but neither McKellen nor Jackson were quite as comfortable with that more transcendent version of the character as with the more fallible earlier version.) McKellen seems to wear the part lightly here, with a twinkle, and less of the foreboding that he projected in much of The Lord of the Rings—all exactly right, I think. McKellen’s Gandalf is one of the most awesomely right and perfect performances of any literary character I’ve ever seen, and I’m so happy there’s more coming. I … I think I’ll cry now.
I don’t have much to say about the casting of the Dwarves yet, except that Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is younger and more, well, Aragornish than my picture of the character. I don’t know offhand what descriptions of Thorin we have from Tolkien, or whether Tolkien drew any pictures, but Thorin in my mind is an older figure, stout as an oak tree, beard as imposing as a shield. I really hope Jackson’s Thorin doesn’t become in The Hobbit what Aragorn became in the later Rings movies, the all-inspiring hero whose greatness diminishes those around him. (I call this centralizing of awesomeness the Aragorn Effect.) If nothing else, the climax of Tolkien’s story should prevent that—but you never know.
It was shrewd of the editors to save two of the most familiar elements (an image and a voice) for the trailer’s final shots.
Here’s my 30-second take on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Here’s my 30-second take on Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.
Here’s my 30-second take on Aardman Animation’s Arthur Christmas.
Last week’s “Reel Faith” season finale is now online at the show’s website. This is the end of regular “Reel Faith” programming until next year’s summer season, although we may come back for one-off episodes a couple of times in the interim, and we’ll continue to produce 30-second reviews.
Because the show will be up at the website for a while, we worked extra hard on it, reviewing five films including Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, Happy Feet Two, Arthur Christmas, The Descendants and The Muppets. We think it’s one of our best episodes, and I hope you enjoy it.
Now that “Reel Faith” is over for the time being, I’m breathing easier and catching up on a lot of things. One thing I’m trying to work on is getting all the 30-second reviews separately available in individual blog posts. This morning I posted four of them: Tangled, The Smurfs, Rabbit Hole and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1. I’ve added them to the blog and where appropriate linked them to the corresponding written reviews (along with a few others that I blogged but hadn’t linked to the written reviews).
Finally, remember to tune in tomorrow to the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” (6:00pm Eastern) as Patrick Coffin and I discuss all the latest movies.
Disney’s Tangled in 30 seconds — in rhyming verse.
Here’s my 30-second rhyming review of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
Don’t give them any more of your time.
This Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, I’ll be on the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live!” with Patrick Coffin. We’ll be discussing The Muppets, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, Happy Feet Two, Arthur Christmas, J. Edgar, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, Tower Heist, In Time and more. Listen live!
Tonight’s episode of “Reel Faith,” is the season finale, and partly for that reason this week I attended an almost unprecedented four screenings: the latest Twilight; Happy Feet Two; Arthur Christmas and The Muppets. Another reason for the heavy screenings was for the sake of my Friday morning radio shows (since of course I’ll be off next week.
This has left me little time for writing, but my written review of The Muppets is almost finished and will be in the next National Catholic Register and appearing at NCRegister.com. I’ve also done new 30-second video reviews of Twilight and The Muppets, which will be available early next week, along with written reviews of Happy Feet Two and Arthur Christmas.
For now, though, if you missed my radio appearances this morning, and if you’re interested in my reviews of Twilight, Happy Feet Two, Arthur Christmas and The Muppets, be sure to tune into the season finale of “Reel Faith” tonight at 8:30pm Eastern (watch live).
Here’s my 30-second take on Tower Heist.
Here’s in Time in 30 seconds from my “Reel Faith” co-host David DiCerto. For a second opinion, see my associated review.
Dear readers: I just discovered a large number of reader emails incorrectly flagged as spam by my email client’s spam filter. If you wrote to me in October and I haven’t written back, that may be the reason why. If you wrote to me before October and I haven’t written back, I’m afraid your email may have been automatically deleted. I apologize for this and will be more vigilant about watching the spam filter in the future. I hope you’ll write again.
How family films reveal or obscure the realities of divorce and brokenness — and how literal a “broken home” can be in films like Zathura, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Monster House and Up.
A broken home in Disney’s Lilo & Stitch.
I think it was six years ago, coming home from a screening of Zathura, that I started seriously wrestling with the problem of what I’ve come to call the Broken Family Film.
On the one hand, marriage and an intact household with father and mother raising children together is and will always be the ideal, the standard, the norm. Divorce has become “normal” in the sense that it is a matter of common experience, but we don’t want it to be normalized in the sense of being accepted as something that just happens and is just an inevitable part of life, something that is nobody’s fault or is all for the best.
On the other hand, given the reality of ever larger numbers of children with parents who aren’t married and don’t live together, we can’t expect every family in the movies and TV—even in children’s entertainment—to look like the ideal. Stories can’t ignore real life, or they become irrelevant. We need stories to explore how life ought to be, but also to explore how life actually is. Children growing up in broken homes need stories that resonate with their experiences.
The thing is, the term Broken Family Films is ambiguous. It can mean family films about broken families, made by and for a culture of broken families. But it can also mean family films that are broken in one way or another. But how? There is brokenness and brokenness—sometimes wholesome, sometimes not.
Pope Benedict XVI and former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial on May 11, 2009 in Jerusalem.
Memo to Susan Sarandon, vis-a-vis your “Nazi pope” comments this weekend:
Joseph Ratzinger was a victim of the Nazi horror.
When he was a young boy his family was forced to relocate due to his father’s outspoken criticism of the Nazis. Surreptitiously listening to Allied radio broadcasts behind closed doors and drawn curtains—strictly forbidden, of course—Ratzinger and his family learned what was really happening in the war, contrary to German propaganda.
At 14 Ratzinger was briefly conscripted into the Hitler Youth—membership was compulsory—but he refused to attend meetings.
At seminary, a Nazi professor urged him to attend the Hitler Youth just once to get documentation for a tuition reduction—but when he saw Ratzinger’s unwillingness to go even once, he relented and helped Ratzinger get the reduction without attending even once. Eventually Ratzinger was able to get a dispensation from Hitler Youth activities by arguing that it was incompatible with his pre-seminary life.
In 1943, while in seminary, he was conscripted into an antiaircraft unit, but eventually deserted, ending the war as a POW.
Half a century ago, Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s weekly television series Life Is Worth Living (and later The Fulton Sheen Program) commanded an audience of millions of Americans of all stripes. Sheen was “America’s Priest,” and since then there has been no comparable figure in American culture — and there may never be again.
That said, Father Robert Barron, a priest of the Chicago archdiocese and the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary, is making inroads into mainstream media in a way not seen since Sheen. On Sunday, October 3, Chicago-based superstation WGN America launched a weekly half-hour television series, “Word on Fire with Father Robert Barron” — the first regular commercial television show hosted by a priest since Sheen. Then there’s Catholicism, an ambitious ten-episode series, episodes of which are now airing on PBS affiliate in over 85 markets across the country.
Inspired by Kenneth Clark’s groundbreaking 1969 BBC series “Civilisation,” which ushered in a generation of globe-hopping documentaries, Fr. Barron and his crew employ a worldwide backdrop that includes the Holy Land, Europe, Africa, India, the Philippines — at least 50 locations in 15 countries. Unabashedly a work of advocacy, even evangelization, Catholicism offers a confident, upbeat overview of the scope of 2000 years of Catholic history, belief, thought and practice.
Much of this is the common heritage of all Christians, and Fr. Barron’s approach is catholic as well as Catholic, name-checking C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright alongside Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. Evangelicals will feel very much at home for the first few episodes as Fr. Barron expounds upon the disorienting, challenging uniqueness of Jesus, the revolutionary power of his teachings, and the fathomless mystery of God. Other episodes, particularly those dealing with the Virgin Mary and the Eucharist, will challenge non-Catholic sensibilities, but Fr. Barron’s emphasis on Scripture and reason establishes a broad common ground, and open-minded Evangelicals will appreciate his presentation even when they disagree.
Fr. Barron makes an engaging, appealing spokesman for Christianity and Catholicism, and his method is consistently positive and nonpolemical. He discusses topics like Aquinas’s ways of proving God and Catholic Marian spirituality without going out of his way to oppose challenges like “God is a delusion” or “Catholics worship Mary.” The settings are more than window dressing; Fr. Barron goes to Auschwitz to discuss the problem of evil, and magnificent locations including Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the tomb of Mother Teresa help to bring the Faith alive to the senses and the imagination.
Check television listings at the “Catholicism” series website and/or check local PBS listings. “Catholicism” is also available as a five-disc DVD set with or without study program aids and a companion book.
Here is the trailer for Catholicism:
A reader writes:
Well, I finally got around to watching Monsters vs. Aliens … and was not impressed. Generally, I agreed with your review; however, I had one issue. You stated:
A superfluous scene depicting a young couple parking in a convertible at night first ridicules the virility of the young man, a letter-wearing jock (the girl wants some action, and is clearly disappointed by her beau’s diffidence) — then depicts him trailing fearfully behind his intrepid date as she goes to investigate a mysterious crash in the distance. He even twists his ankle so that she has to carry him.
I believe that this scene was less of an insult toward men and more of a declaration on the manner with which women are consistently portrayed in films. The screenwriters simply switched the clichéd roles of the man and the woman within Hollywood movies. Did it belong in a children’s film? No — what young child would understand? Was it an interesting statement? I thought so.
One thing I’d like to see in mainstream movies is depictions of strong women who, yes, can handle themselves, but treat and are treated by men with respect. In generally every mainstream film, women are there to be sexual objects (and usually that only), while strong leading men have the exciting, interesting roles. In fact, Ms. Geena Davis (an actress) funded some very interesting research on gender stereotypes in television and films. Quote: “Examining over 4,000 characters across 400 G, PG, PG-13, and R-rated movies, our data reveal that two types of females often frequent film: the traditional and the hypersexual.”
Whew, that was a lot! I just wanted to make my point that men usually are portrayed more positively than women in film and television — though still not nearly enough — as women are being equated to sexual objects within our culture.
As a father of three daughters, I’m very conscious of how female characters are portrayed in animation and family films generally. The studies you point to raise some valid considerations: It’s certainly true that male characters simply outnumber females, and that females are often sexualized, whether in a “traditional” or “hypersexual” mode.
Here’s my 30-second take on Machine Gun Preacher. See also my related interview with Sam Childers.
Here’s Dolphin Tale in 30 seconds from my “Reel Faith” co-host David DiCerto.
This is not a Bible film.
The recent announcement that Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky is moving forward with a $130 million adaptation of the story of Noah’s ark comes on the heels of last week’s news that Steven Spielberg is being sought to direct a new epic on the life of Moses for Warner Bros.
These are just two of a remarkably high number of Hollywood biblical projects in the works at the moment:
- In addition to Warner Bros’ Moses project, there’s another Moses story in development at 20th Century Fox.
- There are also two projects underway to make a movie about Judah Maccabee and the Maccabean War. One is being developed by Mel Gibson and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas.
- The other Maccabees project, which might wind up as a TV production or a big-screen film, is being developed by Jewish producer Bruce Nash.
- A project a step removed from the Bible itself is worth noting: Alex Proyas’ Paradise Lost movie.
- Director Scott Derrickson, whose name was once attached to Paradise Lost, is working on a David and Goliath movie that focuses on the Philistine.
- Camilla Belle, who has been rumored for the role of Eve in Paradise Lost, has been cast as the Virgin Mary in Mary the Mother of Christ, written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Barbara Nicolosi and starring Al Pacino and Peter O’Toole.
That’s an impressive convergence of biblical films in development at the same time.
How any of them will turn out, of course, is anyone’s guess. Aronofsky’s Noah project has been called a “fantasy epic,” but Aronofsky has also been working on a related graphic novel project that apparently puts a science-fiction spin on the Noah story. It’s not clear that Aronofsky intends the film to be a sci-fi retelling of the Noah story, but the prospect is a disconcerting one.
Then there’s Variety’s reference to the Fox project retelling the Exodus story “in 300 style.” That might be no more than a reference to the use of green-screen technology, but still the precedent of recent pictures like 300, Clash of the Titans and the upcoming Immortals may be some indication of the creative environment in which these movies will be made. Is Hollywood up to the challenge of retelling these biblical stories?
How should Hollywood filmmakers approach these stories? Here are a few suggestions for open-minded filmmakers:
Both newly available in multi-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo editions, Dumbo and The Lion King were each developed during one of Disney’s two periods of greatest creative flourishing.
Dumbo came at the height of Disney’s early Golden Age, amid the four towering masterpieces—Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio and Bambi—that laid the foundations for all subsequent Disney feature animation.
The Lion King came at almost the height of the 1990s Disney renaissance, following the early successes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, and preceding the diminishing returns of Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan and finally Fantasia 2000, which can be regarded as the final nail in the Disney renaissance’s coffin. (See my earlier two-part post on Fantasia and Fantasia 2000.)
Both Dumbo and The Lion King are much beloved, though in my opinion they’re both overrated and comparatively disappointing.