Mailbag #14

Ivanhoe, Up, The Passion of the Christ, Star Trek, Angels & Demons, Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, The Gospel of John and more.

Re. Ivanhoe (1982)

Saw your “DVD Picks” review of Ivanhoe in the National Catholic Register. You may remember that Anthony Andrews had just come of playing Lord Sebastian in “Brideshead Revisited.” I remember at the time some speculation that he took that to avoid getting subsequently typecast. (“Find me a role, any role, as long as it is as different from Sebasian as can be!”)

Of course, Andrews then went on to do The Scarlet Pimpernel, which sort of combined the swishy with the swashbuckling. (Swishbuckling?)

Link to this item

Re. Up

I have mostly stopped reading movie reviews prior to viewing the movies, except for the reviews you write. Perhaps I just read the wrong reviewers, but I’ve noticed that more and more of them pretty much just give away the entire story and leave no room for surprise. It’s almost as though movie reviewers these days want to make sure that the movie consumer knows exactly what their $9.00 (or whatever it costs in your market) is getting them. It sure doesn’t leave a lot of room for surprise and wonder.

This was brought to mind rather strongly in comparing your review of Up with the review published by another Christian venue for the same movie. I read yours before seeing the movie (I skipped the spoiler section on first reading, though your spoilers tend to be more coy than most), and the other review post-viewing. While I appreciated the other critic’s insights into some of the themes, I found the six or seven paragraphs summarizing almost the entire movie to be way to revealing. The review gave away too much. I say this not to pick on the other critic, but to illustrate what I see to be a general trend in movie reviews.

I’m not a particularly observant movie watcher. I know little about movie-making technique, and I rarely sit around after viewing to analyze what it was that made the story work. I find reviews helpful to tip me off to things to keep an eye out for that I might otherwise miss, insights that amplify the viewing experience, and of course, whether the movie is one I might want to see. For me, a good review is one that I can read both before and after seeing the film and get something out of each time, while also getting to enjoy the movie itself.

So thank you. Your reviews are consistently excellent (even when I have to disagree with your conclusions), and have been instrumental in pushing me to see movies I might not otherwise have seen (e.g. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days). You don’t give away the story or spoil the movie for me, either. For all these things, I am grateful. Thank you!

Spoiler territory is a minefield, partly because one person’s spoiler is another person’s basic plot point, and also because it can be just plain hard to write about a film without revealing what happens. Reveal too much, and you spoil the movie; reveal too little, and you wind up not giving the reader useful information.

At the same time, good art thrives under constraint, and the constraint not to reveal spoilers is no different from any other. Some of my favorite bits of my own film writing happened precisely where I felt least free to discuss what actually happens. In such cases, I would rather write about the feeling or the effect of the events than spell out plot points.

Your description of a good review very much coincides with my own. That’s the kind of writing I try to do; thanks for confirming that I’m on the right track.

Link to this item

Re. Up

I think you should up (no pun intended) your rating to an A+. I saw the movie with my teenage kids and they were moved by the incredible love of the couple. I’ve never seen love expressed so simple and so joyful in a cartoon movie.

I try not to sweat ratings too much. Ultimately film appreciation is not a matter of numbers. I’m a film critic because I love writing about film, not because I love rating films. Up was a joy to watch, to think about, to write about. That’s what matters to me as a critic.

Link to this item

Re. Up

Thank you for your “final thoughts” on the real role of the house in Up. There was something about the house’s relationship with Carl I didn’t quite get at the time (possibly because I was holding a 2-year-old on my lap, and the moment of the great house-purging occurred just as he — the 2-year-old — ran out of cherry icee — otherwise, he sat through the entire thing in rapt attention), but your comments on how [spoiler alert] the house became a burden to be dragged around and Carl’s piecemeal attempts to rid himself of it before realizing it was a real life-trap made the whole movie click for me.

And, for what it’s worth, I was one of the guys who cried in the theater (probably the only time during the movie I was glad we’d seen it in 3‑D … those tinted buddy holly glasses are good for something). Not too many animated movies deal with the unsharable grief of a miscarriage (and certainly none with that degree of economy and emotional precision).

But then, I cried in Cars (and every other Pixar movie), too, when Route 66 gets bypassed and Radiator Springs becomes a forgotten ghost town, so maybe I’m just a sucker for a good story.

For what it’s worth, I was distracted at my Up screening by a late arrival at the exact moment between the Fredricksons decorating the nursery and the shot of Ellie sitting alone outside in her grief … so I had to sort of piece that together the first time.

Cars is one Pixar film I don’t cry for. But I actually choked up recently during, I kid you not, Galaxy Quest, during the scene in which Alan Rickman’s alien groupie is dying and Rickman actually says, “By Grabthar’s hammer, you shall be avenged.” He loathes that line. But it meant such a lot to the dying alien. Silly as it is, that motif of generosity toward the dying plucked a heartstring for me. Plus Rickman is just such a great actor, he really sells it.

Link to this item

Re. Decent Films

Is it a sin to watch a film with nudity/partial nudity if you’re not watching the film to see the nudity, and the nudity does not cause you to sin?

Your question reminds me of the wise priest who said, “The Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, has always taught authoritatively, and will always teach authoritatively, that the visual arts … are a grey area.”

I’ve written about nudity in film before, notably in “What Are the Decent Films?

Whether nudity in a film causes the viewer to sin is, of course, the chief issue, though not the only issue. There is also the dignity of the actors to be considered. Gratuitous or exploitative nudity is always wrong, at least for the filmmakers.

While the presence of some morally problematic content does not necessarily make a movie morally unwatchable for the viewer, it isn’t something to take lightly, and of course the more prominently problematic content is featured in a film, the more of an obstacle it becomes.

Incidentally, actual nudity isn’t the only issue here. Lascivious displays involving more or less clothed bodies are also contrary to human dignity.

That said, Catholic moral theology does not support the conclusion that all nudity in art, including cinema, must always be considered morally wrong, or that Catholics must always avoid all art that includes such nudity, even if that nudity is at times morally problematic.

Link to this item

Re. <i>The Passion of the Christ</i>: First Impressions

In your article “The Passion of the Christ: First Impressions,” you call the film “a preeminently important cinematic expression of the faith — probably one of the most important religious films of all time.” Yet the movie is not rated in your website. It seems a glaring omission. I believe it should be included and rated as an A+ movie, spiritual value +4 and entertainment value 4 stars.

I wrote three different articles on The Passion of the Christ from different perspectives. At that point, an additional “review” seemed superfluous.

Ratings can be useful, but in the end appreciation isn’t about numbers (letter grades, stars, etc.). C. S. Lewis didn’t need a rating to write about the greatness of The Lord of the Rings or Paradise Lost.

Furthermore, in the case of a controversial film like The Passion of the Christ ratings can actually obscure what the critic has to say. Readers glance at the rating to get the “bottom line,” and then praise or censure the critic for his conclusions without really engaging how he articulates and defends those conclusions.

Sometimes, I would rather oblige readers to do the hard work of actually looking at what I have to say, rather than just agreeing or disagreeing with a number. (Cf. also my pieces on The Last Temptation of Christ, The Magdalene Sisters and Luther all written as articles and published without ratings.)

Link to this item

Re. Star Trek

My wife and I saw the movie Star Trek. Unmarried people carried on in their underwear. Brief though it was, it contradicts God’s laws concerning sex and modesty. What was equally troubling was the fact that there was a group of about three dozen teenagers from a local church that were present. It is not that they haven’t seen these things before, but that it was unnecessary for this sci-fi film to include a scene which treats unmarried sex and immodesty as expected or normal behaviour having no moral relevance.

But even worse was the taking of God’s name in vain. Again, the remarks above apply here with even greater weight, since it is our Lord whose name is being abused. In your review, you simply said “a few coarse references.” Taking God’s name in vain is much more serious than a few coarse references. It would be a great service to those who look to your reviews for some guidance to let your readers know when there are profanities of this type. Had I known of the profanity above, I would not have taken my wife to see this movie.

I guess we are all getting numb to the continuous assault on our moral bearings. These assaults are so integrated into our culture, I guess you as a reviewer, and we as viewers, hardly take these offenses to God too seriously. Except, of course for those who strive to live in and build the Kingdom of God, whose moral sensitivities are outraged at the behaviours that offend God.

I appreciate your work and hope that you can find ways to warn people of the nature of the offenses to Catholic moral living that a movie contains.

Thanks for writing, and for calling to my attention my failure to note the misuse of God’s name in my content advisory for Star Trek, an oversight I have now corrected.

I do take profanity more seriously than merely obscene or crass language, and try to note it when it occurs. However, my note-taking is sporadic and I sometimes forget things later on, so I always appreciate readers calling to my attention issues I missed.

It is important to bear in mind that a movie does not necessarily condone, promote or glorify the behavior of its characters, and that just because a character engages in blasphemy or sexual immorality does not necessarily mean that the movie encourages similar behavior.

One of my favorite examples of this with regard to blasphemy is in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which Sean Connery’s Henry Jones fetches his son Indy a stunning slap across the face for misusing the name of Jesus Christ, admonishing, “That’s for blasphemy!”

Even if this is seen as an old man’s moralistic reaction, the scene still reminds viewers that there are people who do take offense at such language, and is actually more likely to discourage such language than to encourage it.

While the casual profanity in Star Trek is not critiqued in that way, in regard to the bedroom scene I think it’s fair to say that this scene, and the larger presentation of Kirk’s character, actually offer a critique of Kirk as a flawed, emotionally immature womanizer whose charm has distinct limits — whom a woman of substance like Uhura wouldn’t fall for, and who turns off even a more willing partner by his shallowness.

The old 1960s TV show, although less explicit, uncritically presented Kirk as a stud who routinely got the alien babe. That there was never an onscreen bedroom scene doesn’t change the basic James-Bond glamor with which the character was presented. The movie’s presentation is significantly less glamorous in this regard, and in my view is actually a more moral portrayal of the character.

A similar principle applies, in my view, to the even briefer bedroom scene in Iron Man even though in that case Tony actually gets the girl. The comeuppance of the morning after, in which Tony’s playmate gets taken out with the trash by Pepper Potts — and then we find out that Tony was hiding in his basement workshop the whole time — saps any potential glamor from the scene, and reveals Tony for the callous, cowardly cad that he is.

Link to this item

Re. Angels & Demons

you only insult angels and demons because in portrays the catholic church as a evil organization willing to kill people for “faith.”

One critic down, ninety-nine to go.

Link to this item

Re. Decent Films

I am the Dean of Students at a small Catholic college in Canada. Our students are required to “get permission” to watch movies in order to help with the discernment of wheather or not it is appropriate for viewing in community. We have been hoping to compile a list of movies, mostly modern ones (last 25 years) that are pre-approved, such as the ones recommended on your website. Is there such a list that you wouldn’t mind sharing with us? I would be most grateful for your assistance.

Who is responsible for approving or not approving movies? I can’t predict what movies would or wouldn’t meet with the approval of a given authority, although I could propose possible candidates.

As a place to start, you might try searching via the Decent Films search page on movies from 1985 and later, rated for teens and up or less restrictive, with a rating of B or higher. At this writing that search currently yields 252 results.

You can also try other custom searches on genre (e.g., religious themes) and moral-spiritual value.

Link to this item

Re. Molokai: The Story of Father Damien

In your original review of Molokai, you wrote that you were reading biographies of Fr. Damien because a couple of scenes in the film didn’t ring true. Did you find anything to disprove these scenes?

I found nothing either to directly justify or to directly debunk either strange scene, but it doesn’t change my basic skepticism toward the scenes.

It is possible that Damien had some sort of sensibility regarding Hawaii’s “old gods” that might have seemed scandalous to some, but I doubt that the movie line accurately reflects this. It is also not impossible that Damien officiated at a wedding that would not have been permitted by canon law, but I suspect this would have involved considerations not presented in the film.

Link to this item

Re. The Gospel of John

I purchased a video called The Gospel of John made in 2003. It’s a Canada/UK production. It seemed pretty good until we got to the “last Supper” part. Then things started falling apart. They show Mary Magdalene to be one of the apostles. She’s the only woman at the table and Jesus seems to be anointing her along with the apostles. Then she goes out to the garden with Jesus and the apostles. I find this to be heretical and would like to alert others to this deception. Thank you.

A sister

The Gospel of Johns depiction of Mary Magdalene is indeed problematic, though I wouldn’t call it heretical (since it is not formally contrary to any dogma of faith).

The portrayal of Mary Magdalene sitting side by side with the apostles at the Last Supper reflects a Protestant sensibility toward the status of the apostles, the Last Supper itself and the role of women in the Church.

The Catholic belief that at the Last Supper Jesus commissioned the apostles specifically to offer the eucharistic sacrifice, thereby making them priests, is not reflected in this film. (Of course, John’s Gospel doesn’t recount the institution of the Last Supper, so it’s not as problematic here as it would be in a Synoptic presentation.)

This is not the only problem with the film. As I noted in my review, the Good News Bible rendering of John 6:55 (“My flesh is the real food, and my blood is the real drink”) seems to give figurative spin to Jesus’ emphasis on the literal truth of his words.

While it is important to be aware of these and other limitations in the film, I find that its strengths outweigh its weaknesses, and it is still worth recommending as an honorable though imperfect attempt to bring the words of the Gospel to life in a visual form.

Link to this item