Decent Films Blog
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.
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.
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.
Who better to direct a new Hollywood epic on the life on Moses than Steven Spielberg?
Deadline.com reports that Spielberg has read the script for Gods and Kings, written by Michael Green and Stuart Hazeldine—and that Warner Bros wants him for the job.
There’s something instantly appealing about the thought of Spielberg directing Hollywood’s first major live-action take on Moses’ story since Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 crowning achievement, The Ten Commandments.
Spielberg’s career as a filmmaker owes a great deal to DeMille. In fact, the first film Spielberg ever saw, at the age of seven, was Cecil B. DeMille’s penultimate picture, and the movie that made Charlton Heston a star, the Academy Award-winning The Greatest Show on Earth.
It was a portentous convergence in many ways. DeMille’s long career of popular success had been a Barnumesque pursuit of showmanship and spectacle on a grand scale, and the DeMille film set Spielberg on a similar course of Hollywood showmanship. Spielberg wasn’t just bitten by the movie bug. He was inspired to make grand spectacles and popular entertainments, openly playing to audience emotions in a way that courted the same critical charges of sentimentalism leveled against DeMille.
This Friday, September 30, I’ll be on the second hour of Catholic Answers Live! (7pm–8pm EDT). Patrick Coffin and I will be talking about new and older movies including The Way, Courageous, The Lion King, Machine Gun Preacher, Moneyball, Dolphin Tale, Contagion, Citizen Kane, Warrior and more. Listen live!
Buy at Amazon.com
Contagion may not be everyone’s ideal date movie, but I’m married to an RN who prefers a good medical thriller to a trite chick flick. Suz was impressed with the technical realism of Contagion. I was impressed too. Here’s my 30-second take.
I’m pleased to report that “Reel Faith”—the Catholic movie review TV show that I co-host with David DiCerto—is back for a special fall season, and that episode 1 is now available at the Reel Faith website at NetNY.net!
Reviewed in episode 1: Moneyball, The Lion King, Warrior and Contagion. Coming in episode 2 this Friday: Machine Gun Preacher, Dolphin Tale and Abduction. Unfortunately, I’ll never get around to writing up all these movies, so if you’re interested in my take on them—or if you think two points of view are better than one—“Reel Faith” may be your best bet.
With “Reel Faith” you also get 30-second video reviews by David and me. Prior to this past summer season, I had a lot of fun doing 30-second reviews in rhyming verse. When the summer season got underway, though, writing the rhymes became too labor-intensive, and I had to go back to basics. The upside is that the 30-second spots are more practical and informative, even if they’re less fun. (I’ll be posting new 30-second reviews soon.)
Working in a visual medium brings a new dimension to film criticism. Video clips help to establish the film and provide a context for talking about it. The dialogue format is also appropriate, because film criticism should be a conversation, at least implicitly, in which critics interact with other insights and points of view.
Other points of view includes readers and viewer, whether it’s in comboxes at NCRegister.com or my occasional mail column at Decent Films—and at Reel Faith we’re interested in your input too.
In fact, right now we aren’t just interested in your input—we need it.
My essay “Hollywood Adjustment?” appeared in Catholic World Report several months ago when The Adjustment Bureau and Soul Surfer were in theaters. For some reason I never got around to posting it here at Decent Films.
Now, having blogged this week on this month’s trend of religiously themed films (Warrior, Machine Gun Preacher, Courageous and Seven Days in Utopia, with The Way and The Mighty Macs just around the corner), “Hollywood Adjustment?” is timely again. So it seemed like a good time to post it — and spotlight it, to make up for neglecting it for the past few months.
Gerard Butler as Sam Childers in Machine Gun Preacher
The mixed martial arts drama Warrior, now in theaters, is one of no fewer than four theatrical releases to be released this month featuring Christian themes and being marketed specifically to Christians. (That’s not counting family-friendly fare like Dolphin Tale and The Lion King also being marketed to the religious press.)
Of the four films, two are Hollywood releases: Warrior and the fact-based biopic Machine Gun Preacher (opening Friday). The other two are Christian indie projects: the golf movie Seven Days in Utopia, starring Robert Duvall, Lucas Black and Melissa Leo, and the ensemble drama Courageous, from the Fireproof people, Sherwood Pictures.
Two are sports films (following in the footsteps of The Blind Side and Secretariat). More notably, three of the four—Warrior, Machine Gun Preacher and Courageous—are overtly concerned with masculinity and what it means to be a man. (The fourth film, the dismally reviewed Seven Days in Utopia, is the only one of the four I haven’t seen, but it doesn’t appear to touch on issues of masculinity in the same way.)
Although the three films diverge in many respects, common themes as well as contrasts emerge.
Tags have come to Decent Films!
Thanks to the efforts of the site’s volunteer developer Simeon, Decent Films has taken another step forward in navigability and ease of use.
At the bottom of this blog post, you’ll see a tag for “Decent Films Doings.” Select that, and you’ll come to a page listing all the Decent Films news-related posts I could find going back to the beginning of the blog.
Of course, who would want to review old news items? But there are other more interesting and helpful tags too. The full list is available in the Tags button in the top nav above. (You can also click on the Tags link in the main head on any tag page.) And, as I’ve spent several days creating and populating tags, you’ll find tag listings at the bottoms of blog posts, reviews and articles throughout Decent Films.
Good grief. Salon.com critic Andrew O’Hehir, who wound up in a blogging skirmish with Roger Ebert after blasting Secretariat as a “honey-dipped fantasy vision of the American past as the Tea Party would like to imagine it,” is at it again.
Now O’Hehir divines that Warrior is Secretariat’s anti-government, tax-cutting, Constitution-spouting ideological twin: “pseudo-individualist, sub-Freudian, Tea Party-friendly fantasy.”
All rightee then. Crowd-pleasing sports movie that O’Hehir finds insulting to his refined palate, thy name is Tea Party.
Meanwhile, Arts & Faith member Bowen has some pointed questions, not exactly about Warrior, but about Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll’s enthusiastic defense of mixed martial arts (MMA). (Driscoll’s comments are referenced in an article about MMA linked in my review of Warrior.) Among other things, Driscoll opined that “men made for combat, men are made for conflict, men are made for dominion … That's just the way men are made.“ Bowen asks:
- If men are made for domination, what about the loser in an MMA match? He didn’t dominate — is he a failed man?
- If men are made for combat, why are almost all the men at an MMA event spectators? Surely the pure model for Driscoll isn’t MMA: it’s Fight Club, where everyone fights.
Tomorrow Star Wars finally comes to Blu-ray in three editions: The Original Trilogy, The Prequel Trilogy, and The Complete Saga. Good news for Star Wars fans, right?
If you’re a Star Wars fan, though, you may already know—or, if you didn’t know, you might have guessed—that George Lucas wouldn’t be content to release the same old twice-retweaked versions of the films released on DVD in 2004. That version incorporated the Special Edition changes from the 1997 theatrical releases—such as the infamous “Greedo shooting first” tweak, so that Han wouldn’t be such a scoundrel—plus new Extra-Special changes made specifically for the DVDs.
Needless to say, the Extra-Special Editions were so 2004. Now, for your Blu-ray watching pleasure, Lucas has unveiled the Extra-Extra-Special Editions—“I won’t call it the Ultimate Set because we keep finding stuff,” Lucas has ominously noted—with still more tweaks that have fanboys of all ages shouting “Nooooooooooooooo!”
Actually, they have Darth Vader shouting “Nooooooooooooooo!” At the very climax of Return of the Jedi, where Vader has a change of heart, grabs the Emperor who is dark-side-ocuting Luke, and tosses him into one of those really deep pits they build in Star Wars-land—where previously he was silent, Vader now shouts “Nooooooooooooooo!” This isn’t the only new change, but it’s the one attracting the most attention and consternation.
Just a quick note to say that while Irene put a dent in my writing schedule this week and I’ve completed none of the projects I hoped to post by today, I plan to hit the ground running after Labor Day and will be posting multiple pieces next week. Cheers everyone!
Neither of the two reviews posting today is for a newly opening movie, but with the summer winding down, vacation behind me and “Reel Faith”’s summer season ending with next week’s finale (edit: not tonight’s finale; preempted for World Youth Day), I’m trying to catch up. After Cowboys & Aliens and Crazy, Stupid, Love, movies I’ve screened that I’d like to write about including today’s Fright Night as well as The Help, 30 Seconds or Less and even The Smurfs.
Meanwhile, tonight I’ll be on the first hour of Catholic Answers Live, talking about all the movies of the summer — and if you missed last week’s episode of “Reel Faith,” there’s still time to catch it at the website! Also, of course, be sure to catch the finale next Friday. See the homepage Spotlight for more info.
No new reviews today. Instead, my essay on the superhero movies of 2011 should be available soon at NCRegister.com. I do hope to write reviews of 30 Minutes or Less and The Smurfs as well as Cowboys & Aliens (really — I hope!).
In the meantime, if you missed my radio reviews this morning of 30 Minutes or Less and Crazy, Stupid, Love, I’ll be on “Kresta in the Afternoon” today around 4:40 EDT talking about both movies — as well as Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I’ll also be reviewing 30 Minutes and Crazy, Stupid tonight with David DiCerto on the penultimate episode of “Reel Faith” (8:30 PM on NET-NY). See Spotlight for more info.
Here is Roger Ebert on Final Destination 5. His final sentence is classic.
I expect this movie to make a lot of money at the box office, spent by fans eager to see still more cool ways for hot young characters to be slaughtered. My review will not be read by any of these people. They know what they enjoy. They don’t want no damn movies with damn surprises. I am always pleased when moviegoers have a good time; perhaps they will return to a theater and someday see a good movie by accident, and it will start them thinking.
A hopeful and generous thought. The only catch, alas, is that it is much harder to make a good movie by accident than to see one by accident; and since making good movies is not Hollywood’s top priority, the odds of accidentally seeing a good one are comfortably low.
Sorry I neglected to mention this earlier: I’m on vacation with the family this week (with only spotty Internet access!), which is why there’s no Cowboys and Aliens review here at Decent Films. I will be on the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” tonight, though. And of course there will be a new episode of “Reel Faith” tonight on NET. Both are available online (see the homepage Spotlight box for links).
This week Of Gods and Men debuts on Blu-ray/DVD. See my full review for product notes. You may also want to check out my five-part blog post series “How Catholic is Of Gods and Men?” I’ve seen it three times now, and it’s easily my favorite film of the year, if not the past several years.
Also new on Blu-ray/DVD this week are Pixar’s three audacious “second phase” films, Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up. Each is a treasure. If you’re not sure what I mean by “second phase,” you might enjoy “Three Phases of Pixar History.”
Look up at the Decent Films nav bar and you’ll see a new addition: In addition to RSS and Facebook, Decent Films is now on Twitter.
The URLs are very simple:
One advantage of Twitter compared to Facebook is that Facebook doesn’t show you every post from all your friends and likes, so even if you like Decent Films on Facebook, you’ll still miss updates. With Twitter, once you follow Decent Films, you’ll get every tweet (and hopefully I’ll remember to tweet every Decent Films update).
At this writing I have 0 followers on Twitter. Please change that — and if you have a following on Twitter yourself, I’d appreciate a tweet to spread the word. Thanks!
With Cars 2 approaching this weekend, I thought I’d take a look back at Cars, easily Pixar’s least impressive and celebrated film since their second picture, A Bug’s Life.
It’s easy to forget that although A Bug’s Life followed Pixar’s masterful debut Toy Story, it came before the astonishing string of superior successes—Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles—that catapulted Pixar into its own orbit as the unquestioned kings of family entertainment.
When Cars came out, it was seen as a slight, flawed Pixar effort, simply because Pixar had raised the bar so high. Six or seven years earlier, when studios could release cartoons like Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Antz without being compared to the likes of Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, a movie like Cars would have been judged far more leniently.
Conversely, A Bug’s Life wasn’t originally subjected to the same critical rigor as Cars—and reasonably so, since Pixar obviously grew in those early years. This, though, raises the question: Which is really Pixar’s least interesting effort to date: A Bug’s Life or Cars?
J. J. Abrams is a skilled storyteller, but has a bad habit of over-promising and under-delivering. Super 8: my “Reel Faith” review.
Green Lantern: my “Reel Faith” review.