Mailbag #7

The Wicker Man, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Prince Caspian, The Happening, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Once, WALL-E and more.

Re. Once

I always look forward to reading your reviews, as they are consistently insightful and thought-provoking (not to mention that most of the time they’re right).

One thing which I’ve appreciated is that I’ve never seen you criticize, say, American movies just because they’re American, or praise indie movies just because they’ve escaped Hollywood, etc. It doesn’t make any sense to do so, I think, but nevertheless it is often done.

In that light, I’m wondering in what sense to take your final ’graph in your review of Once. The disjunct here seems too neat, and to reflect a stereotype (of there being a difference between “crowds” and more refined viewers) which does not need reinforcing — since in my opinion most people straddle both groups, depending on a host of factors including the time of day. And, of course, “Once” did play to crowds — it reached a vastly greater audience than anyone seems to have expected — but those crowds weren’t looking for disposable entertainment. Clarification, please?

Great question. Thanks.

First, as you infer, I’m certainly not against anything popular for being popular. My top 10 lists over the years have included the likes of The Incredibles, The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man 2.

Even “disposable entertainment” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as far as it goes. I’ve enjoyed and recommended films like Flushed Away, Inside Man and Seabiscuit, none of which I feel I must see again before I die. I’d consider them all “disposable entertainment” (Flushed Away almost by definition!), but that doesn’t mean something to look down one’s nose at. (To Jeff Overstreet’s rhetorical question in Through a Screen Darkly concerning whether he advocates film snobbery, I’m happy to give the same answer he does: “Great Naked Gun… no!”)

Having said that, when we talk about “playing to the crowds,” some perspective might be helpful. Once is currently closing in on $10M domestically and $17M globally. In relation to its negligible budget ($150K according to Box Office Mojo), that’s astoundingly good. Still, it’s been seen by fewer people than such certified flops as Lions for Lambs, The Invasion and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. What makes the latter films flops, of course, is that with their vastly higher budgets they were expected to play much more successfully to the crowds.

Look at the kinds of films that wind up at the top of the box-office charts: In 2007 the top five films were Spider‑Man 3, Shrek the Third, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

These weren’t just movies that happened to have bigger budgets than Once. All five are franchise films; all are adaptations of previous mass-marketed properties (unless you don’t count Pirates, an “adaptation” of a theme-park ride); all but one are multi-sequels (a trio of threequels and a five-quel [pentequel?]), plus, um, a Michael Bay adaptation of a TV cartoon with battling robots and Megan Fox. If you scan on down the list of top crowd-pleasers, the same kind(s) of films crop up again and again.

Having said that, of course you’re right that a lot of those people would also like movies like Once — just as a lot of the people in the crowds might like the songs the guy sings at night. If they ever stopped to listen. On the other hand, nothing is more likely to help a film like this find its audience than pointing out that it isn’t exactly Hairspray (which, for the record, I enjoyed), which is what I was trying to do.

Hope that makes a semblance of sense.

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Re. The Wicker Man

Love the site — but please get rid of the The Wicker Man “Coming Soon” notice for goodness sakes. Been there for years and you never add or review it!

It is silly, isn’t it? It’s like a millstone around my neck — the way Titanic was for all the months I had that in “Coming Soon,” before I finally got around to reviewing it.

I put things there with the best of intentions, meaning to get to it within a week or two, but circumstances intervene and it becomes harder to get to. And then the more time goes by, the more I feel obliged to deliver something worth the wait, so to speak, and the difficulty in ever doing anything mounts. After all this time, simply to take it down feels like a betrayal of the people who’ve been watching that space all this time, but so far I’ve been unable to deliver. Maybe within a month or so.

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Re. Raiders of the Lost Ark

I am writing in hopes that you will reconsider the your moral/spiritual value rating for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I was twelve when Raiders first was released and I have been thus a nearly lifelong fan of the film. But having watched it again recently I have discovered that it is morally problematic. In a nutshell, this is because of the number of German soldiers Indy injures or kills whose only crime seems to have been — participating in a archaeological dig and guarding it and the retrieved relic as was their duty as soldiers. The Nazis on the other hand kill — nobody.

They do attempt to kill Indy and Marion, but fail, true. But the only culprits who are really responsible for that are the three principle baddies.

Consider Indy’s situation on escaping the Well of Souls. The Germans have the ark. From Indy’s point of view the ark is merely a grand prize. No one is harmed by it being in the German’s possession. There is nothing heroic about retrieving it from them. Yet Indy attacks the airplane, killing the pilot, two mechanics and possibly some other ground crew in the explosion — none of whom were established to be in any way villainous. They were just a bunch guys doing their rather ordinary military jobs until attacked by Indy. What is the moral difference between that and the attack by the Russians on the gate guards in the opening of Crystal Skull?

Even at twelve I felt bad for the big bald German, who was just trying to protect his airplane from an unknown enemy, and doing so in the kind of fairplay manner reminiscent of, say, the Lone Ranger.

Then we have the same situation with the truck chase and battle. There is no morally compelling for Indy to go after them. They are at worst thieves, but most or all of the ordinary soldiers involved are ignorant of any wrongdoing. They are threatening no one. No one is any danger if Indy lets them go. But he attacks them and kills a number of them.

Belloc’s statement in the bar that they are not so very different rings true. “Men will kill for it. Men like you and me.”

You make an interesting argument, and I appreciate the style of thinking you’re pursuing. I’m not convinced, though. Some thoughts:

  1. You say Belloq’s statement in the bar that Indy isn’t so different from him “rings true.” Yes. It’s meant to, as the subsequent lines from Indy and Belloq suggest. Indy is not a pure hero; the movie doesn’t lift him up as an exemplar of virtue. The locus of holiness in the film is not Indy or Marion, but the ark. That Indy is a morally flawed hero doesn’t amount make Raiders a morally flawed movie.
  2. Certainly we’re meant to root for Indy as he goes against the Nazis to regain the ark. But I think that’s at least partly because we look at the Nazis from our post-WWII point of view as the ultimate villains, and also because we believe the ark to be more than a mere historical artifact. Indy’s moral grounds in undertaking the action are not identical to our moral grounds in rooting for him.

Those points noted, I think Indy’s use of deadly force may be less unjustified than you suggest:

  1. As you note, the villains leave Indy and Marion to die in the Well of Souls. True, it’s the main bad guys who are responsible here; the rest of the Nazi soldiers are just following orders. But it could equally be said that if Indy and Marion were caught after escaping, there isn’t a soldier in the group who wouldn’t shoot Indy and Marion on orders from those same villains. Indy and Marion are in deadly peril at every moment after they escape from the Well of Souls, and Indy responds in kind.
  2. As further context, it was the Nazis who made the first use of deadly force in Nepal. Indy’s first resort there, as elsewhere, is his non-lethal whip (even the famous gag with the swordsman was originally supposed to be a sword-whip duel, but Ford wasn’t up to the physical challenge that day); thus he disarms Toht to prevent him from permanently disfiguring Marion — and urges him to let her go. The Nazis escalate and Indy and Marion are forced to defend themselves with deadly force. The villains later made further use of deadly force by trying to poison Indy.
  3. You say “From Indy’s point of view the ark is merely a grand prize. No one is harmed by it being in the German’s possession. There is nothing heroic about retrieving it from them.” It’s not entirely clear to me that this is true. Certainly Indy has “been to Sunday school.” He glibly brushes off Marcus’s cautions as “a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus” — perhaps too glibly. And when the time comes, he knows enough to tell Marion to close her eyes, not to look. It may be that on some level at least Indy has not entirely discounted the possibility that if the Nazis possess the ark it could be disastrous for the world.
  4. Granted a level of sporting spirit, the big bald German is a sadistic bully whose death is not on Indy’s head. He could easily have subdued Indy with minimal force any time he wanted to, which is certainly what the Lone Ranger would have done in such a situation. He chose fisticuffs instead, toying with Indy cat-and-mouse style, because it was more fun. Indy stood up to him as best he could, and while he could have warned the German before the other man’s gruesome death, to do so would almost certainly have ultimately resulted in Indy’s own death.
  5. Indy’s one-man assault on the Nazi caravan differs from the Communist ambush of the U.S. forces at Area 51 in several key respects. Indy, desperately outnumbered, “making it up as he goes,” kills no one who isn’t a clear and immediate threat to his own life — who wouldn’t quickly cause his own death. By contrast, the Communists at Area 51 in Crystal Skull, following a well-prepared plan, have the drop on the U.S. forces, and could probably capture them unharmed had they wanted to; conversely, were they themselves to be captured, I’m not sure they would face capital punishment (although perhaps they might). In any case, the massacre was their plan going in.

I don’t say that these considerations entirely alleviate any moral concerns regarding Indy’s behavior. But as per the earlier points I don’t think it is necessary to clear Indy of all wrongdoing. The morality of the hero doesn’t automatically carry over to the moral implications of the film.

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Re. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Your recent review of the film Prince Caspian suggests that only a literal adaptation of the book can suffice, or that unless an audience is steeped in Christian allusion when watching Lewis’ “fairy stories” (as he called them) onscreen, the film versions are suspect.

Lois Lowry (author of The Giver) has said that a faithful film adaptation is “one that is true to the spirit of the book.” A faithful adaptation and a literal adaptation are not the same thing, and your review implies that unless literal, an adaptation cannot be faithful or true to the spirit of the book.

When in 1950, Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was first published, Lewis could assume that his (then primarily British) audience knew full well what these sparse lines meant: “This is the story of something that happened when they (the Pevensie children) were sent away from London during the War because of the air raids.” Lewis also said that unless “fairy stories” were grounded in the reality of the time, they wouldn’t work.

So in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the 2005 film opens with the bombing of London. Two lines in the book become the first nine minutes of the Walden/Disney film. A modern audience can’t be expected to know the horror and peril behind those lines and so, in moving from the word to the image, it is depicted rather than implied. And although Lewis sometimes turned up his nose at psychiatry, he was a darned good shrink himself: he knew that, even worse than the bombings of London, the real horror for the children of that book was being separated from their parents.

One of the real portents of the faithfulness of the film versions of Lion, Witch (and now Caspian) is their combined ability to re-introduce these “fairy stories” to an entirely new generation of readers — because they are so faithful.

People mistakenly think that if children first see the film, they won’t then read the book. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Finally, I refer you to Lewis’ lovely Letters to Children published in book form. Lewis has plenty to say about what he did — and did not — mean his books to mean.

Lewis’ Christian references and allusions are there for the taking for those who see them and make use of them. For those who do not, the stories also resonate. I think the films bring readers and moviegoers alike to a discovery of a magical place called Narnia where, as Aslan says in Prince Caspian, “Things never happen in the same way twice.”

Randy Michael Testa, Ed.D.
Vice President, Education and Professional Development,
Walden Media, LLC

Are you sure you read my review, Randy? Your notion that I in any way assume or imply that “only a literal adaptation of the book can suffice” is utterly off the mark; so far is this from the case that in fact my review thoroughly repudiates that notion, specifically going on for three paragraphs or so praising the film’s well-chosen departures from Lewis.

The view you ascribe to me is so contrary to my critical philosophy that I’m guessing you may be thinking, not of my review, but of my interview piece with Doug, Mark, Ben, Will and Peter (either that, or you’ve got me confused with some other critic altogether). In that piece I was interacting less with the film itself than with the book and what the filmmakers had to say about the film and the book.

I absolutely agree with the line you quote from Lois Lowry that a faithful film adaptation is “true to the spirit of the book.” That is why, when I do criticize your film, it is not for changes in literal incident, but where it misses or subverts the spirit of the book. Note well the last two sentences in the excerpt below:

Perhaps most damagingly, the filmmakers eviscerate the crucial theme of skepticism about the existence of Aslan and the Kings and Queens of Cair Paravel, as well as the whole world of Dwarfs, Talking Beasts and spirits of wood and water.

No longer do we see Caspian’s nurse dismissed for telling Caspian stories of Old Narnia, or his tutor Dr. Cornelius daring to instruct him in these matters only in private. This might not matter so much if the film had other ways of making the point — but it doesn’t. The notion that stories of Old Narnia are anathema in modern Narnia is simply lost.

Note that I specifically say that if only the “point,” i.e., the “spirit,” were preserved in some other way, revisions in detail wouldn’t matter. It’s the loss of the whole underlying theme, not particular incidents, that’s the problem.

I honestly don’t know what to make of your claims (and Mark’s too) about how extraordinarily faithful the Narnia films are. Holes is a faithful adaptation, and an excellent one. It remains your finest film. The Narnia films don’t achieve anything remotely approaching that kind of fidelity, either in letter or in spirit.

I have no problem with the air-raid sequence at the top of your version of LW&W. I do have a problem with that film’s systematic diminishing of Aslan and systematic strengthening of the Witch, its subversion of Peter’s leadership role, and its sympathetic reinterpretation of Edmund (who is no longer the bad kid Lewis imagines, but only misunderstood and mistreated by his brother), among other things.

I’m glad you’ve enjoyed Letters to Children, a book I’ve owned since I was one myself, and have read any number of times. I am curious which letter you are thinking of when you say that “Christian references and allusions are there for the taking for those who see them and make use of them.”

Though this meme has often been voiced in connection with the Narnia films, it seems to me, if not outright false, certainly very far from adequate. The Christian meaning in Lewis’s Narnia stories is not just a matter of “references and allusions” that are “there for the taking.” Aslan is not just a “Christ figure,” he is nothing less than an imaginary portrayal of the very Divine Person known as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, who in our world became the man Jesus and in this world appears as the Lion Aslan.

You write that “People mistakenly think that if children first see the film, they won’t then read the book. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Once again, you seem to be disagreeing with someone other than me. As I wrote back in 2005 in connection with the first film:

There is a happy sense in which, whatever liberties the film takes for good or ill, it can’t fail to bring Lewis’s story to a wider audience with all its themes fully intact. The reason, of course, is that films always send audiences in droves to the source material. Sales of the Narnia books have been climbing since the trailer for the film debuted last spring, and for weeks The Chronicles of Narnia has occupied the top spot on New York Times bestseller list for children’s paperbacks, with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe currently in second place to the series as a whole.

Happily, the same principle holds today.

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Re. The Happening (2008)

I wonder if you have seen M Night Shyamalan’s latest flick The Happening. All critics are crying foul and some are actually glad. These people say that finally it has been proved that M. Night Shyamalan is an untalented hack who committed career suicide. Is M. Night a misunderstood filmmaker or truly a hack? I think he has some talent and with a better script could make a better movie. What do you think?

The Happening is the first Shyamalan film since The Sixth Sense that I haven’t screened before it opened. In my book, every Shyamalan film since then has been less accomplished than the ones before it. Unbreakable was impressive but elusively incomplete and unsatisfying. Signs was thought-provoking but glaringly flawed. The Village was uninvolving and unsuccessful. And Lady in the Water was a disaster.

I do think Shyamalan has talent, but that talent is tied in knots that pull tighter and tighter with every film, crippling him creatively. My guess is that he became too successful too quickly and was unable to deal with the pressure of being THE M. Night Shyamalan — unable to live up to the idea of his own success, unable to critique himself, unable to see the world and his own work with ordinary eyes. A Tomatometer critic put it well by noting that for all Shyamalan’s complaints about being misunderstood, it seems he’s the one who doesn’t understand us.

At this point, I don’t think Shyamalan can save himself. A good tough agent might be able to do something, if Shyamalan were willing to be saved.

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Re. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

You wrote:

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an homage to homage, playing to nostalgia for the earlier Indiana Jones films. In that capacity, it delivers more or less what one would expect: a reunion with a few old friends amid disposable popcorn entertainment, not a lot different from countless Raiders imitators. Enjoy it for what it is, but don’t hope for more.

Exactly right. And we can enjoy it because the self-referential aspect is much more acceptable here than it is, say, in At World’s End. What we wanted there was a satisfying conclusion to what had been begun only a year before in Dead Man’s Chest; what we got was something prematurely ’mythology-bound’ (as you put it).

Here we’re not looking for the resolution of a crisis, but for something that makes us feel we’re in the world of the Indiana Jones that we came to know all those years ago. And on that level, it works. It’s still disappointing, though, that the aliens/lost-civilization plot, which is the vehicle for the action and interaction, is so silly and so easy not to care about! But then we took it for granted that the aliens would give Spalko her deserts; what we really cared about in the ending was [spoiler alert] seeing Indy and Marion finally get married. And your comment about the fedora is again spot on.

I won’t read your review of Prince Caspian until I’ve seen the movie, but your B+ looks encouraging!

A priest

Thanks for writing, Father. I agree completely: Every Indy film to date has been a one-off, this one more than any since the original, because of the time lapse.

I just rewatched At World’s End with my two older boys, and was struck at the extent to which, without being exactly horrible in itself, it failed completely as a conclusion to the trilogy, and specifically to the second film. To pick just one point, after spending a whole film building up the Kraken as a monster, they kill it off between movies? Isn’t that a little like telling us in the opening crawl of Return of the Jedi that the Emperor killed Darth Vader after he let Luke escape? As lame as the jokey end of Boba Fett might have been, this was ten times worse.

In part At World’s End fails for precisely the reason that Crystal Skull modestly succeeds: In At World’s End, the story and the emotions have become so serious and woebegone that no one is having any fun. In Crystal Skull, having fun is the whole point. Neither perhaps quite gets the balance that made Raiders so great, and Curse of the Black Pearl a superior entertainment. Failing that, though, I’ll take fun over no-fun.

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Steven, I just want to thank you for this site, for the time you take to analyze each movie. I love that your reviews are not the typical “air head” reviews but that you look for the more profound meaning of the movie and the morality in them. I had a chance to see you once in Life on the Rock commenting on Narnia (Lion, Witch and Wardrobe) and thanks to that I decided not to take my five-year-old to see it. Since then your site has been a must every time I want to take my children to the movies.

About WALL-E: I think it is a lovely movie; my kids (an eight-year-old and a four-year-old) loved it — they laughed, they got sad, they understood it perfectly. Never in the whole movie I heard a complaint about it being boring or long. After it was over my husband and I talked with them about our responsibility to take care of the world since it was a gift from God, and also about how we use our talents and our bodies and time to help everyone around us and be happy.

Thanks a lot again and God bless your apostolate.

Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’m gratified that you find my work helpful.

A while back my wife Suzanne pointed out a column in the paper that described a local WALL-E screening losing a couple of families with young kids by the halfway mark, so I’m gratified to hear about children as young as eight and four appreciating the whole film. You and your husband must be doing something right!

[Added: This weekend our whole family went to see WALL-E, and our kids really enjoyed it too. Five-year-old Anna wants to see it again. It’s true: Children can appreciate an artful, often wordless film about a post-apocalyptic world filled with trash and a lonely robot, with no cuddly animals or parent–child relationships. It just took the mad geniuses at Pixar to take the risk of demonstrating it.]

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Re. Decent Films

It’s a shame and sad that you have so much knowledge and intelligence that you aren’t entertained by simple movies like the rest of us. I feel sorry for you. Well at least you get paid for what you do, I guess that’s what counts. Your reviews miss the point quite often. But it’s fun reading your reviews. Just like watching movies — it entertaining, that’s all.

Let me tell you a story.

Two men are at a wine tasting, and try three vintages from three different tables. The first man enjoys all three.

The second man enjoys the first drink, the same as the first man. But when they get to the second table, he demurs: “It’s flabby. Nothing special. A little short on the finish.” At this, the second says, “It’s a shame you have so much knowledge that you can’t enjoy a simple drink like the rest of us.”

Then they try the third vintage, which the first man enjoys every bit as much as he did the first. This time, though, the second man goes nuts. He’s rhapsodizing about finesse, breeding, balance, hints of this and that, etc. He is in a transport of joy.

Which man do you think enjoyed the wine tasting more?

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