Mailbag #10

The Express, Bee Movie, Brokeback Mountain, Hayao Miyazaki, Forrest Gump, Pan’s Labyrinth and more.

Re. Decent Films

Where’ve you been? I’ve noticed a couple of weeks go by without any new reviews or even a mail column. And what’s up with your DVD section? The right-hand column is several months old — and the DVD page hasn’t been updated since 2007.

Right you are. I’m afraid I’ve been busier than usual with non-film related stuff lately. Among other things, I’ve been blogging about the election, voting and morality from a Catholic perspective over at my friend Jimmy Akin’s blog. Obviously that’s about to end, though, so I hope to get back to business as usual at Decent Films.

Incidentally, I’ve begun updating the DVD section again (and I’ll put this exchange at the top of my next mail column very soon). Thanks for your interest!

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Re. The Express

I agree on everything you put in your review of The Express. I saw it with my 14 year old son as part of a parish wide thank you for volunteers at our fall festival. It is a very inspiring story. I was disappointed that the film used God’s name in vain at least a dozen times, and disappointed you didn’t mention it. Thanks for your work, I visit this site often as new movies come out.

I’m glad you enjoyed The Express. Thanks for the heads-up on the profanity — I try to catch stuff like that, but sometimes if I don’t write it down when it happens I forget about it later. I’ll look into changing the content advisory.

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Re. The Express

I ran across a review of The Express on the Internet (found via Rotten Tomatoes) that says the racism depicted toward Ernie Davis in the movie is not accurate to his actual experiences. Also the review points out that the Syracuse–WVU game shown in the film was actually played at Syracuse, not WVU. I would be interested in your comments. My friend I were originally going to see The Express on Monday, but based on the review linked above we have decided to see City of Ember instead.

As my review notes, the film’s relocation of the WVU game from Syracuse to West Virginia is clearly for the sake of heightening the racism theme. I can understand WVU fans taking umbrage, although I’m not sure who is in a position to say how unfair the depiction is. (For what it’s worth, WVU did have an all-white team at that point.)

I can’t say I find it persuasive to argue, as the review you mention does, that because Davis wasn’t one to complain about how he might have been treated, the film’s depiction of the racism he suffered must be speculative. I haven’t read the Davis biography the film is partially based on; the critic in question makes a point of noting that he saw Davis play, but doesn’t mention whether he read the book either. In any case, the possibility that evidence of racist resistance might hinge on testimony other than Ernie’s own, or that Ernie himself might have spoken about such incidents without “complaining,” does not seem particularly remote.

I warmly recommend The Express. I haven’t yet reviewed City of Ember, but the short version is that for a kid flick that isn’t actually very good, it’s kind of cool.

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Re. Bee Movie

In your review of Bee Movie, I was surprised you didn’t take issue with the courtroom scene about the defense lawyer, an obvious slight against Christians in the same demeaning spirit as Inherit the Wind. I found the film to be mildly amusing too, but found this to be yet another stab at the Christian faith that isn’t really necessary for the film to be funny. (We get it, Hollywood. You hate us!) Still … as if any educated soul would take it to mean that man was put on this earth “by Almighty God” to exploit creation rather than be good stewards of it is bigotry. Couldn’t the writer have kept religion out of it? If Mel Gibson gets a slap for stereotyping Jews, why not Jerry Seinfeld — who apparently gets a pass by you, defenders of the film The Passion of the Christ.

I have to confess I barely remember the Bee Movie moment you describe. The gag in question sounds like an absurdist caricature of a religious attitude, not a realistic depiction of an educated interpretation of the scripture. Even if it’s a swipe, I’m not sure it’s totally unfair; even if they wouldn’t put it that way, some Christians do seem to feel more or less the way the gag suggests.

In any case, a throwaway gag, however problematic, isn’t remotely in the same league as the systematic agenda of Inherit the Wind or the complex but problematic portrayal of the Jews in The Passion of the Christ. Even to mention them in the same breath trivializes the issues under discussion in connection with the latter two films.

I’m not sure what you mean by “defenders of the film The Passion of the Christ.” I tried to deal with the subject of The Passion’s depiction of the Jews in a nuanced way, acknowledging the problematic aspects while clarifying what some felt were outright antisemitic elements. I don’t think The Passion is antisemitic, though I do think it has problematic elements. See my article The Passion of the Christ and Antisemitism” for more.

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Re. Brokeback Mountain

Believe it or not, I have finally gotten around to seeing Brokeback Mountain. After viewing it, I searched the web for reviews to see whether anyone else may have interpreted the movie as I. Your review does not, but it came close to addressing what I thought was an important, and overlooked theme.

There is overwhelming focus on homosexuality and marital fidelty in reviews. However, as I viewed the movie I was struck by the portrayal of men versus women. None of the men are terribly likable, being either callous or quasi-violent. The women however are almost always compassionate and forgiving. Despite the commentary of so-called marital fidelity experts, the women in this movie know what is going on. Not only do they know it, they allow it to go on. They are not especially victimized by the infidelity. Why does Innis’ wife, after seeing the post card, fully suspecting its meaning, does not discard it. Most poignantly, in the scene where Innis goes to jack’s parent’s ranch, Jack’s mother lets Innis take the bloodied clothing. Note in that scene how the concerned mother appears with a cross over her left shoulder. Mistake? Or Stabat Mater?

This film is not post-Christian. It is eminently Christian, with the female (Virgin Mary) figures, pained and sacrificing, always displaying love and forgiveness. I was unimpressed with the male characters, and the homosexual theme is incidental. The males characters are an unlikeable lot. The women are divine.

Your observations are intriguing, but I don’t find your construal persuasive. Why should a story of “unlikeable males and divine women” be particularly Christian?

It’s true that Christian tradition venerates the Virgin Mary as “our tainted nature’s solitary boast,” and that female characters who are in one way or another full of grace (e.g., Galadriel, Lucy Pevensie) may partially reflect this veneration. That doesn’t automatically make a portrayal of women suffering and displaying understanding “eminently Christian.”

For one thing, there is nothing redemptive about the women’s suffering and understanding. Like E.T., whose death and resurrection is a lot like Jesus’ except for not accomplishing anything, the women of Brokeback Mountain suffer and understand to no ultimate vindication or redemption.

Yes, Jack’s mother is a mater dolorosa. Lots of mothers have been bereaved of their sons. The particular character of Mary’s suffering is that she suffered with a son who suffered freely and innocently for the salvation of the world, and was also vindicated with him.

You say the males are an “unlikeable lot.” There can be no truly Marian stabat mater dolorosa without a Christlike salve caput cruentatum — no Marian woman “pierced with a sword” without a Christlike “man of sorrows.” Whatever else he was, Jack wasn’t that, as you acknowledge.

I submit that the meaning of suffering and understanding is inseparable from what it is that is being suffered and understood. In this case, what the women suffer and understand is the men’s infidelity and homosexuality. The suggestion that this theme is incidental is unconvincing. It is why the women suffer and understand.

The real import of the women’s suffering and understanding, I submit, is that they suffer because the men have been pressured by society to take roles that were never right for them, and they understand that it is not ultimately the men’s fault. Society is to blame, for its heteronormativity. That presentation may be many things, but I wouldn’t call it “eminently Christian.”

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Re. Hayao Miyazaki

I have enjoyed reading your reviews of Miyazaki’s anime films, and was wondering if there is any chance of more reviews of his films in the near future. Perhaps Princess Mononoke or Howl’s Moving Castle?

I am a great admirer of Miyazaki. Both Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are contenders for a spot on my personal all-time top 10 list, should I ever draw up such a thing. In addition to Kiki’s Delivery Service (also reviewed), I greatly appreciate Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Laputa / Castle in the Sky and one of Miyazaki’s least characteristic films, The Castle of Cagliostro.

Perhaps ironically, the only exceptions to my Miyazaki love are the two films you mention. I found Princess Mononoke powerful but tough going; I’d have to give it another shot before I could review it. And Howl’s Moving Castle is the only Miyazaki I’ve ever seen that (after a typically brilliant opening) outright disappointed me. His plots are often dreamlike and confusing, but here he seems lost and listless.

I would love to review some more Miyzaki, though I don’t know when I’ll get the chance. Thanks for the interest, though.

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Re. Forrest Gump (1994)

After reading the review of Mr. Bean’s Holiday, I decided to see what you thought about Forrest Gump. Since you don’t have a review of it, I’m assuming you disapprove of it. I have never seen it. Sometimes it is mentioned as a favorite among teens and others. I’m curious what you think of it.

Because I don’t have a review, you assume I disapprove of it? That’s a rather dangerous assumption! I don’t have nearly enough time to review all the movies I like, let alone all the movies I would like to review. Some films on my own recent annual top 10 lists don’t yet have reviews of their own.

When I first saw Forrest Gump in 1994, I thought it was witty goof, an elaborate conceit stringing together various historical events around the unaware titular protagonist.

However, Thomas Hibbs in Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld argues that, beneath its clowning, Forrest Gump offers “a comic view of the meaninglessness of life.” History is random, not meaningful; not just a tale told by but a starring vehicle for an idiot, signifying nothing.

I’m not sure Hibbs is right, in part because I haven’t seen the film in at least ten years, but it’s an intriguing interpretation.

Sorry to dodge the question!

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Re. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

You are my go-to guy for film reviews. I appreciate how you have helped me through the years look at various movies and maybe even watched things I would not normally have watched. Ok, so I’m still not planning on seeing Hellboy but I’m considering Lars and the Real Girl which I would have never considered before I read the review!

My 18-year-old daughter watched this movie, Pan’s Labyrinth, and wondered if you have seen it and what your opinion is of it. She really, really wants to know! I have not watched it yet.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a tough nut. I’m in awe of the imaginative force of Del Toro’s visuals, both here and in Hellboy II: The Golden Army (not so much the original), and there’s a lot to like about the tone of Pan’s Labyrinth and the unsparing contrast between the magic of childhood and the harshness of the adult world.

Ultimately, I found it a depressing and alienating vision — which doesn’t make it a bad film. I also felt frustrated by the lack of even fairy-tale logic in some of the fantasy sequences; I understand that that might be my bringing to the film expectations that had nothing to do with what Del Toro was doing, but on first viewing I found the film somewhat unsatisfying. However, it’s a work of dazzling creativity, and I may need to see it again to form a more definite opinion.

I hope you enjoy Lars and the Real Girl!

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Re. Decent Films

Does a moral-spiritual value of +4/-4 mean the moral value is 4 and the spiritual value is 4? I have been thinking of them as separate, e.g. moral/spiritual. I have a hard time rationalizing how a movie can have a moral-spiritual rating of +4/-2 if both numbers relate to the same attribute.

Except for my confusion I like your ratings and use them to help select weekly movies for the Christian retirement community where I live.

Like many critics, I don’t really like ratings. They’re a convenience to the reader as a quick index of the critic’s opinion, but sometimes readers seem to regard the rating as the ultimate verdict on the film, and the review as the accompanying opinion clarifying or justifying the rating.

There are really too many ways for a movie to be variously good or bad, or both at the same time, for any ratings system to do justice to any film worth discussing. In my ratings system, I’ve tried to strike a balance between the complexities of what makes a film worthwhile or not and the built-in limitations of any ratings scheme.

“Moral-spiritual value” in my system is is an umbrella category, not two separate criteria. The reason for split ratings like +3/-2 is that it is often not possible to consider the moral-spiritual significance of a film as “good” or “bad” in an undifferentiated way. Movies often combine significant positive and negative elements, both of which demand to be acknowledged in their own right.

For example, I gave Juno a split +3/-2 rating. On the +3 side, I found Juno’s strikingly pro-life resonances worthy of enthusiastic acknowledgment. On the other hand, the rather uncritical treatment of teen sexual activity, divorce and remarriage and the sheer crudity of the first half-hour in particular add a problematic element to the film.

For the record, I believe the widest split rating for any Decent Films review is for Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which I called at +3/-3. On the one hand, the film’s intense spiritual thirst, moral conflict and religious awareness are profoundly humanistic and worthwhile; on the other hand, Bergman seems to point away from religion in various ways.

The ratings at either extreme, +4 and -4, are intended to express a degree of praise or censure that is unqualified, and I don’t believe I have ever mitigated them with a contrasting rating. Thus, no actual movie would have the example you give,+4/-2.

Hope that makes some sense.

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Re. Decent Films

I happen to enjoy your ratings and frequently find my taste agreeing! I would love it if there were some way to sort your ratings by Grade/Moral value so that I can look for movies to see that are recommended, instead of having to read through all the archives.

There is! Go to the Search page (the link next to the search field). There you can sort reviews by ranges of any given criteria: recommendability, artistic-entertainment rating, moral-spiritual rating, age appropriateness, year of release, genre, USCCB rating, MPAA rating, and other criteria.

There are also quick searches in the leftnav offering top recommendations in various genres, top-recommended films, most morally-spiritually significant films, and even a couple of categories for non-recommended films (if you’re interested in negative reviews). Thanks for your interest.

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