Mailbag #1

The Magdalene Sisters, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Guadalupe, Titanic, Harry Potter, Apocalypto, The Passion of the Christ and Top Hat.

Re. The Magdalene Sisters (2003)

You ask why all of the nuns connected with the laundry depicted in the film were ‘bad apples?’ Consider the phrase ‘corrupt culture’ — how long would a ‘good apple’ have lasted in such an environment? Would a nice young novice have stayed in the abusive environment, or would she have either (1) left the horrid place, or (2) accepted the establishment as her superiors in judgement, and eventually become part of the system? Because the possibility of lots of nice people working comfortably within an abusive system, doesn’t work.

My sincere thanks for your thoughtful comments and your honest interaction with my arguments. I can’t say for sure that you are the first reader to take issue with my Magdalene Sisters article in a thoughtful way (there’ve been any number of angry replies of the other sort), but you might be.

Very briefly, the mere fact that all of the nuns are “bad apples” is not exactly my problem with the film. I think I could have accepted that, as far as it goes. (As an aside, I do think your (1) and (2) propositions raise interesting dramatic possibilities — a young nun leaving the order in disgust; the corruption of a malleable young nun — but I certainly wouldn’t fault Mullan for not telling a story he didn’t set out to tell.)

No. My problem with the film is that in the real world, even with bad apples, there are still little bits and streaks of something other than sheer rottenness. Even the most heartless Nazi or Stalinist will still have an occasional flicker of conscience, a moment of moral discomfort, self-examination, or introspection, a flash of sympathetic identification with another human being in duress, even just a moment of geniality and expansiveness in which his whim for the moment favors the subjects of his oppression. Any number of Holocaust films have dared to show varying levels of moral complexity even in Nazis. This is what serious moral drama does, because this is human reality.

Mullan can’t muster this. He can’t even gesture in the direction of moral complexity. The closest thing to what we would ordinarily call humanity (in a positive sense) in any of the nuns is Sr. Bridget’s smiling comments about the cinema. Yet this is only humanity in an aesthetic mode, not a moral mode. (The young priest playing the bodhrán in the opening scene is another example of aesthetic rather than moral humanity.)

I really think the problem with the film is that (a) as Mullan has admitted, he wrote the screenplay in a fit of white-hot rage, which is not the best frame of mind for creative judgment, and (b) Mullan is personally anti-Catholic — which is not to deny that even an angry anti-Catholic artist might manage to transcend these issues and produce a morally serious work that acknowledges the moral complexity of even very flawed human beings. Only that Mullan himself didn’t do this in fact.

Had Mullan managed a level of moral complexity, I would be able to recommend the film, and would do so in fact. The subject is a legitimate one, and deserving of treatment. But I really think that Mullan’s film descends into cheap manipulation that trivializes the seriousness of his topic.

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Re. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

An A- rating? Your review is way off the mark. Perhaps we didn’t see the same movie you did? You saw a movie that would be good for all family members. We saw a movie that was full of violence and horrible imagery. An ’R’ rating would be far more appropriate for this movie. In fact I’ve seen ‘R’ rasted movies that had far less violence. My wife was completely turned off by this movie. I thought it was exceedingly long, plot was full of holes, multiple plots were hard to follow, special effects were sickening.

There were deep sexual overtones. Lots of cleavage. virtually no “decent” aspects to this movie whatsoever.

So they mentioned the Bible. Well consider who mentioned it? The 2 morons, which in my opinion was making fun of God’s Word.

If your review is any indication of how accurate your reviews are then I doubt I will visit your website again.

And while you’re at it, please forward me your definition of “decent”. Because just like your rating of this movie, I suspect the accepted definition of “decent” by decent people will vary significantly from yours.

“Film appreciation, information, and criticism by Christian faith”? That’s a joke, right?

Where in the world did you get the idea that I recommended this film as “a movie that would be good for all family members”? Didn’t you notice the “Teens & up” age-appropriateness rating? I don’t know about your family, but mine has five children who aren’t teenagers yet, and none of my kids have seen the film, or will see it for some time yet.

I also clearly indicated that the film was significantly darker than the original (which is also rated “Teens & up”), and made references to the fearful imagery you mention. I think thoughtful readers will have a clue who this movie is appropriate for and who it isn’t.

“Deep” sexual overtones?, probably the most conscientious detailer of potentially problematic content, rates the sexual content as “moderate.” Cleavage is not something I generally make a big deal about. If you want to know about cleavage, check

You think the two comic-relief pirates are “morons”? They’re probably the smartest, most thoughtful characters in the film, though they’re obviously a little kooky. But no, I absolutely insist that you are wrong to say that the movie is making fun of the Bible, or of the pirates’ concern for their souls. The idea of the fate of your soul and of judgment after death is all over the film. Do you think it was also making fun of the sailor with the rosary who was willing to die rather than join Davy Jones’ crew?

You ask me for my definition of “decent.” Happy to oblige.

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Re. Guadalupe (2006)

Thank you for being the best place for Catholics to go and get useful information to discern if we should attend a movie or not. I am a junior high religion teacher at a Catholic school. I just gave lessons on Our Lady of Guadalupe.

I saw a trailer for the Spanish language movie Guadalupe but I haven’t seen any reviews. Some parts of the trailer have a kind of Da Vinci Code feel. Have you seen it? Is it pro-faith or anti-faith? When will it be available on DVD?

I did catch Guadalupe during its theatrical run, though like many films I see it wasn’t one I got around to reviewing. I don’t see any sign of its coming to DVD.

Although Guadalupe does start out on a kind of Da Vinci Code note, and is more concerned with the doings of its contemporary protagonists than with the story of Juan Diego, the film ultimately turns out to be a reverent treatment that, in the course of its characters investigating the tilma, works in every tidbit of evidence and trivia about the image, the cloth and the story that I’ve ever heard: its miraculous survival, the absence of brush strokes or other signs of artifice; the photographic examination of the Virgin’s eyes.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t make Guadalupe a very good film. The contemporary story is rather dull, and the fictional Da Vinci Code elements (a discovered first-century inscription predicting the Guadalupe image; some sort of correlation between the image and stellar constellations) never really go anywhere. Much of the film is taken up with a trek the protagonists go on to investigate the secrets of the tilma, but there’s ultimately no payoff, no discovery, non-discovery, or dramatic conclusion to the trek. It just kind of peters out.

The best thing about the film is the retelling of the story of Juan Diego, seen in recurring flashbacks. The special effects used to turn a young actress into an apparition of the Virgin Mary are rather cheesy, but the actor playing Juan Diego makes it work.

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Re. Titanic

First off I’d like to say that I’ve been reading your reviews for years, and, as a Catholic convert and avid film lover, I usually enjoy them. Your reviews of Superman Returns and Crash are favorites of mine.

That said, I disagree entirely with your giving Titanic a C-. Wow. To a lesser extent, I think you really didn’t get The Exorcist and Million Dollar Baby (as well as a few others) either, but I think you really missed the point with Titanic.

Anyway, in his commentary as found on the 3-Disc Special Edition version of the film, James Cameron does indeed apologize for his characterization of Murdoch, and refers to him as a hero several times. So, maybe an update of your review should be made.

Thanks for the info re. Cameron and the director’s commentary. I have emended my footnote to reflect this.

Obviously I knew going in that my Titanic review was not going to please everyone. I’m gratified by your response to my reviews of Superman Returns and Crash and I’m not terribly surprised to hear that you had a different take on Million Dollar Baby — but The Exorcist? Really? Feel free to tell me where you feel that I “missed the point” on that one.

Incidentally, FWIW, you may want to know that film critics are always being told that they’ve “missed the point” on this or that film. Nobody ever just disagrees or has another take — somehow the critic has always “missed the point.”

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Re. Harry Potter vs. Gandalf

We recently read your article “Harry Potter vs. Gandalf.” You displayed careful thinking and research. Your article, therefore, was appreciated. It helped clear the confusion we were all feeling concerning works of fantasy. The comparisons between Rowling’s writings and those of Tolkien and Lewis helped us to differentiate the magic and fantasy in Tolkien and Lewis from that of Rowlings.

It appears that your article was written in response to Rowlings earlier books. If this is true, we are hoping that you have written more in response to her recent books. Some of these later writings, from what we are understand, are darker, pushing the boundaries and hedges you discussed in the article.

We are researching this issue and would appreciate your input. May God bless you with wisdom and insight.

I’m gratified that you’ve found my Harry Potter piece in any way helpful. It is quite true that my article was written early in the series, just before the first film was released. In reviewing the films, I’ve tried to keep up with the books, but with Goblet of Fire I just bogged down completely in the book and wasn’t able to finish.

I have not read any of the subsequent books, though as the movies come out I will make an effort to persevere.

My sense is that you are right to say that the books have gotten darker over time; as to how or whether they are pushing the hedges, that’s a bit of a mixed bag.

Some minor entanglements with divination (Professor Trelawny’s class) blur what had been a fairly clear demarcation between the books’ fantasy magic and real-world occultism. On the other hand, in the most recent film, Goblet of Fire, occult-like ritual magic is unambiguously evil: the Unforgivable Curses, the secret Death-Eater cult, the quasi-sacrificial ritual that restores Voldemort.

There is nothing like any of this on the “good” side; suggesting, perhaps, that magic which resembles real-world occult magic is “bad” magic, while “good” magic is of the fantasy variety, not the real-world sort.

I’m afraid that’s all I have for now; hope that’s not entirely unhelpful.

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Re. Apocalypto, The Passion of the Christ

I read a review you wrote in the National Catholic Register about Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto. I thoroughly enjoy reading the Register and from time to time I will brouse through your movie reviews to see what you have to say about the content of recent films, opinions I usually not only agree with but trust.

However, your recent review of Apocalypto was way off the mark. First of all the gore of Mel Gibson’s films are only to make them more realistic, and if you think that is too much, then you don’t belong watching a movie that can actually acurately show the suffering that people go through. The violence of the ancient Mayans can make your stomach turn just reading about it, and all Gibson wanted to do was accurately portray it. It would do you good to read up more about the ancient Mayans and you would discover that his film may not have even done justice itself to the kind of suffering ancient tribes went through at the hands of their hostile enemies.

But, maybe this wouldn’t suit you because you went as far as to mention that the bloodshed in The Passion was unnecessary, a review from a critic I have yet to hear (until now) because it is well known that The Passion or any movie for that matter on the death of Christ could never correctly show Our Lord’s suffering as it was, no matter how violent, but Mel Gibson’s depiction has been the closest yet. Call me crazy, but I call that using modern technology to finally show the truth of how horribly our Lord was crushed for our sins, a movie that could move hearts, simply with that accurate portrayal of the true suffering of an innocent man.

I don’t think we can say that the violence in Apocalypto is for the sake of realism. In the first place, there are ten thousand stories that could be told, about the Maya or anyone else, that have nothing to do with human sacrifice, raping and pillaging, and Most Dangerous Game–style deathtraps in the jungle, etc. Those are not, however, the kinds of stories Gibson wants to tell.

Secondly, if realism were all Gibson was interested in, he could have written a story that focused also on some of the nobler or more accomplished side of Mayan civilization — their achievements in mathematics and astronomy, their mythology, and so forth. (There is a mythic story related in the film, but it isn’t told by the civilized city Maya, but their jungle-dwelling village cousins.)

When realism isn’t violent enough, Gibson invents more violence than realism warrants. For example, I understand that, while the Maya did practice human sacrifice, typically they did not have mass sacrifices of large numbers of prisoners. Rather, they tended to sacrifice a person, such as a chief of an enemy tribe, chosen for his importance. But Gibson wanted mass killing, so we got mass killing. (The vast field of bodies is probably likewise for effect rather than for historical accuracy.)

Furthermore, as my review mentioned, not all of the violence has anything to do with a realistic depiction of Maya culture. How many people in history have had their faces chewed off by jaguars? How many raiding parties have been attacked by jaguars and snakes, had members bash out their brains jumping over waterfalls, etc?

As regards the realism of Jesus’ sufferings in The Passion of the Christ: It’s true that no film could show our Lord’s sufferings, which were incalculable, bearing as he was the weight of the world’s sins. However, the actual physical violence our Lord likely suffered under the Romans was greatly exaggerated in the film.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, consider that of renowned Shroud of Turin expert Dr. Fred Zugibe, a professional forensic medical examiner and adjunct associate professor of Pathology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons.

Dr. Zugibe has said more than once, in my hearing, that the sufferings depicted in The Passion far exceed the violence revealed by the Shroud — besides being many times the amount of violence needed to kill a man outright.

The Roman soldiers were cruel, but they knew their business; given orders to beat a man and release him, it’s very unlikely that they would have subjected him to many times the violence needed to kill a mortal man, thereby subjecting themselves to disciplinary action if he died.

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Re. Apocalypto, The Passion of the Christ

In your assessment of Apocalypto you made these statements:

Even in The Passion of the Christ, although enthusiastic commentators have suggested that the real brutality of Jesus’ passion exceeded that of the film, that Gibson actually toned down the violence in his depiction, realistically this is very likely an inversion of the truth. Certainly Jesus’ redemptive suffering exceeded what any film could depict, but in terms of actual physical violence the real scourging at the pillar could hardly have been as extreme as the film version.

I am taking issue with the above comments for the following reasons. Gibson clearly states that his depiction of Christ’s suffering is based on the approved visions of Mother Mary of Agreda and Anne Catherine Emmerich. Having read substantial excerpts from the works of these mystics I would agree with his premise. They had very detailed images presented to them by God in order to give to humanity a clear picture of the physical and spiritual events in the life of Jesus Christ.

As a Catholic I take particular exception to this:

Even in The Passion Jesus was depicted deliberately prolonging and intensifying the scourging at the pillar, standing up after the Romans had beaten him to the ground and provoking the incredulous soldiers to renew their torturing attack with even greater fury.

Jesus Christ, true God and true man, was in control at all times. He willingly entered into suffering for the sake of all mankind. He would never have provoked the soldiers to fury as it would have increased their sins. God does not provoke us to sin.

I am not aware that the writings of Mary of Agreda have been “approved” by the Church. As far as I know, at one time her book The Mystical City of God was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, and while the ban on reading it was later lifted, that is not the same thing as Church approval of any visions.

I am also not aware that Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich’s visions have been approved as such. In any case, even if any such visions have been approved, as private revelations they would have no doctrinal or authoritative status, and could not be relied upon as historically accurate accounts of first-century events.

It’s certainly true that God does not provoke us to sin, but it’s also true that I described the scene in the film accurately. What Jesus would or wouldn’t have done in real life is one thing; what the movie shows Him doing is something else.

Incidentally, Jesus standing up at the pillar in order to endure more scourging is, as far as I know, Gibson’s own invention. Not everything in The Passion comes from visionary literature and/or the Gospels; Gibson did invent some of it himself.

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Re. Top Hat

Just read your review of Top Hat, and while it’s odd that you didn’t mention the killer performances by Helen Broderick, Eric Blore, and the brilliant Edward Everett Horton, I realize that there are space limitations.

Now, I know that the consensus viewpoint is sometimes, even often, wrong. But sometimes the consensus is right. I point this out because I have never heard anyone, even the tragically unimaginative types who don’t like Astaire/Rogers movies, refer to Astaire’s screen persona as “somewhat annoyng.”

Please tell me this is a typo, or you’d had a bad day, or you had someone else write the review for you, or that you weren’t thinking of Fred Astaire, you were thinking of Nicholas Cage.

Because, whether you enjoy these movies or not, it is simply an objective fact that Astaire is thoroughly charming and a gifted comedic actor, as well as a fine dancer. You might as well say Ginger Rogers isn’t pretty or doesn’t have a nice figure.

Did I say Astaire’s screen persona was “somewhat annoying”? Heh. How careless of me. What I meant to say is that he generally comes off as smug, insouciant, conceited and shallow.

I mean, really, how the heck do you star with Audrey Hepburn — Audrey Hepburn, for pity’s sake — in movie called Funny Face — and when the title song comes up, you’re the one singing about how she’s the one with the funny face? What on earth does Astaire see when he looks in the mirror, anyway?

Oh, and Mrs. Decent Films agrees with me.

Incidentally, I don’t have space limitations, I have time limitations. I write up movies in my off hours, and the amount of time I’m able to invest in a review varies wildly. Also I’m less inclined to invest a lot of energy in a review when (a) I think that others have already done the film sufficient justice and (b) I’m not sure I have anything very unique, interesting or important to say about it.

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