Mailbag #2

Ratatouille, Children of Men, Sicko, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Magdalene Sisters, Just Like Heaven, Dead Man Walking and more.

Re. Faith and Film Criticism

Thanks much for the great work you do with movie reviews. I really do enjoy and appreciate your reviews.

I was wondering if you know of any site that reviews books in a systematic way yet with a Catholic perspective, just like you do with movies… Many times we walk into Barnes & Noble and find some interesting looking books but cannot tell if they contain some hidden poison. It would be nice to have some sort of Please let me know if you know of any.

Thanks for writing, and for your kind words.

Yours is the #1 most frequently asked question I get, not only as regards books but also music, video games, Websites, you name it.

Unfortunately, I have no good answer. I’ve run across a site or two that might have a few book reviews, but in terms of sites dedicated to systematic book (or music, video games, etc.) reviews, nope, I’m not aware of anything out there I can recommend. [If any readers know of sites they’d like to nominate, please let me know.]

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Re. Faith and Film Criticism

Just wanted to take a moment to express my appreciation for the time and effort you have put into this website. I have not read anywhere close to all posted reviews yet, but those I have read have generally been very well thought out and observant. I should perhaps point out that I am NOT Catholic, but I am a Christian (one who for that matter spent twelve years in a Catholic school!) and I appreciate the spiritual angle that your reviews take on all subject films.

I also want to commend you on taking all aspects of artistic expression into account… one weakness of many very well-meaning Christian reviewers is the tendency to cast blanket condemnations on essentially any film made for adults, or for that matter any movies that fall within certain genres such as fantasy, action, etc. Your reviews seem to be more sensitive to poetic license, which in my opinion is a gift from God in itself.

Having said that, you understand that there are things we as Christians should not tolerate. It is this well-roundedness that helps your reviews stand out. I will not say I agree with all your assessments, but I certainly appreciate them and hope your site is around for a long, long time. Thank you for your time and God Bless.

Thanks for writing, and many thanks for your kind words. I’m gratified that you find my work worthwhile on a variety of levels.

As for not agreeing with all my assessments — well, I don’t know that I agree with all of them myself, and certainly I don’t expect anyone else to! As a critic, my role, as I understand it, is not to be an arbiter of opinion, to make pronouncements on films that readers are expected to take for granted.

I do think it’s my role to present an informed and responsible point of view on a film, and in so doing to give readers relevant information about a film that may be useful either in deciding whether or not to see a film, or in helping them sort out their thoughts about a movie they have seen.

I sometimes say that the role of a critic is not that of a judge, handing down authoritative judgments that are binding on readers, but rather that of a lawyer who seeks to present a particular construal of the facts as compellingly as possible. It is the reader who is the judge, or perhaps the jury, and decides whether he has made the case persuasively or not.

Hopefully, my reviews help deepen readers’ reflections on a film, not necessarily by helping them to see it my way, but by offering a point of view that may prod new lines of thinking about their own ideas. In some cases, this may mean being clearer about why they disagree with me! Certainly I’ve had conversations with friends and read reviews that have had precisely this effect on my own opinion, and I’m very grateful to those who have thoughtfully argued other points of view, since without them I never would have come to so clear an understanding of my own perspective.

Of course, I happen to think I’m right more often than not, and I hope my case is persuasive to most of my readers most of the time. But I don’t by any means think one has to agree with a review in order to find it worthwhile.

Also, of course, I hope the reviews are enjoyable to read.

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Re. Ratatouille

Thank you for this fine review of this wonderful movie. (I’ve already seen it twice — at the sneak preview and this weekend as well.) However, I must dissent from one line: “I found myself wishing that it has also been noted that cooking isn’t the sole provenance of great chefs.”

[Spoiler warning!] While it is a subtle point, I believe that this very message is conveyed by Ego’s experience of Remy’s ratatouille. It doesn’t take him back to other dishes he’s had at fine restaurants — it takes him back to being a little boy, for whom Mama’s simple vegetable stew was the most wonderful thing in the world, because it was made for him with love.

Thanks for your kind words, and your excellent observation. Perhaps I need to see the film a second time myself! Come to think of it, perhaps I need to see it a second time anyway; this really is a delightful film, and I look forward to watching it over and over on DVD with my kids.

In any case, I think you have a valid insight; I may just have to revisit this point in my review (with due credit, of course).

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Re. Children of Men

An excellent review as always, Mr. Greydanus. One note though on your response to the attitude that the Fishes have about whether or not fugees as human. You wrote:

Are Britain’s dictators really so far gone that they would deliberately suppress a ray of hope for mankind’s survival on the grounds of the mother’s nationality? Surely, the business about the government not wanting to admit the fugees’ “humanity” can’t be meant literally, can it? The movie can’t really be asking us to accept that a mere two decades from now, the actual biological humanity of non-British people could be a point of serious dispute? But if not, surely the immediate crisis of the propagation of the species trumps all political concerns, even for fascist regimes. We aren’t talking about space-race nationalism here, and anyway, even in the 1950s we were pretty clear the Commies were human.

I believe that even though “fugees” are considered to be a lesser race by the government in story’s setting, their humanity is never in question. The Fish are ultra left-wing political activists/terrorists, and as such, just like extremists in real life, they have a tendency to overinflate the “importance of their struggle.” This includes taking a genuine miscarriage of injustice, the denial of civil rights to immigrants, and blowing it out of proportion into a fight against the “pigs.”

In a nutshell, the Fish, like many protesters, are whiners who try to make their goals seem far more noble then they actually are, and the best way to bring supporters to your cause is to convince people that your enemy wants to destroy everything you hold sacred, including your humanity.

Keep up the good work in your reviews.

Your analysis of the movie Fishes’ overinflated rhetoric and hyperdramatic sense of their own importance and the gravity of the injustices they resist is fascinating, and entirely reasonable. My one reservation is that I strongly suspect your explanation makes more sense than anything Cuarón or his screenwriters were thinking. (Of course we have to distinguish between the Fishes of the movie and those of the book, but that’s another story.)

It is interesting that apart from Julian and Miriam the Fishes seem at least shot through with murderously corrupt and untrustworthy leadership. One might otherwise get the idea that their point of view was the movie’s own. As it is, it’s hard to know what to think.

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Re. Sicko (2007)

I’d be very interested to hear what you think about Sicko. When reading some reviews recently I happened to search for Michael Moore’s other movies here and found none of them. So maybe you have some objection to them in general. There’s one thing that Moore says several times in his films that I think you’d appreciate. Basically it’s this: should we not be judged by how we treat the least among us?

Thanks for your reviews and keep up the good work.

I have seen some of Michael Moore’s work, but I’ve stayed away from reviewing his films for the same reason I haven’t reviewed other political hot-potato movies: Politically themed movies as a class, whether liberal or conservative, leave me cold. C. S. Lewis once wrote:

I don’t like detective stories and therefore all detective stories look alike to me. If I wrote about them I should infallibly write drivel… Let bad tragedies be censured by those who love tragedy, bad detective stories by those who love the detective story. Then we shall learn their real faults.

In the same way, pick any random film critic out of all the critics in the world, and I’m sure you have someone better qualified to judge a Michael Moore movie than I am.

The message you attribute to Moore, about being judged by how we treat the least among us, comes of course from the gospel parable about the sheep and the goats, so it’s hardly one I would object to. The larger principle, rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, is to do as you would be done by. I leave it to others better suited to the discussion to explore whether, or to what extent, Moore’s approach to filmmaking and his use of subjects meets such a standard.

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Re. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

A lot of the criticism you gave At World’s End revolved around things that were left unexplained. Through my nerdy searchings on the internet, I heard that Verbinski cut out quite a lot of material, due to the length of the film. If a director’s cut is ever released on DVD, would you add that in to your review? I think your opinion might change a little then.

I agree with most of what you said in your review but I still had one of the best theater experiences in a long time (probably the best since The Return of the King) I might e‑mail you again as regards to what I disagreed with. By the way, I’ve almost all your reviews and I think your the best movie critic on the web. Keep up the good work!

While I concede it’s possible that an extended cut might clear up some of the problems with POTC: At World’s End, I have to think that the main effect would be to make an already bloated 168-minute film even more bloated. Plus, my biggest problems with the film are the sort of thing that no possible additions could fix.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible (though unlikely, I think) that on the cutting-room floor is footage that makes sense of Davy Jones and Calypso’s relationship arc, or even Barbossa’s return. But no restored footage is going to fix the ruined ending, for instance. It didn’t need to be longer. It needed a better story and a better ending.

The worst thing about At World’s End is that it now sucks half the fun out of last year’s Dead Man’s Chest, which I loved at the time, and still enjoy. The two films are so tightly tied together that I can’t properly enjoy Dead Man’s Chest, knowing that there’s nowhere to go from there.

Sigh. At least we still have the original.

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Re. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

[Major spoilers] Enjoyed and for the most part agreed with your review of At World’s End — just thought that (in case someone hasn’t already told you by now) I should let you know that the writers have confirmed in various internet places that Will gets out after ten years. The reason Davy Jones was so mad at Calypso was that the only way he could be freed from his soul-ferrying duty was to have her faithfully waiting for him at the end of ten years (which she wasn’t).

Did you stay for the scene after the credits? In that, we see a ten-years-later Elizabeth and her and Will’s son go down to the beach and wait eagerly for sunset, when a green flash appears and the Flying Dutchman comes to them — the implication being, what with the green flash and Elizabeth being faithful, that Will is now allowed to return to his family and someone else must take over the Flying Dutchman.

I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. This is not what I (and others) understood from the film.

As far as I can tell, as captain of the Flying Dutchman, Will gets one day on shore every ten years, which means that at the most he and Elizabeth have at most a half dozen or so days left to spend together for the rest of their lives. I did indeed stay for the tag at the end, in which Will gets to meet his 10-year-old son for the first time; as far as I know, it’s the last time he’ll see him until he’s 20.

I thought the reason Jones was so mad at Calypso was that she wasn’t there the one day he had to spend with her — not that, if she had been there, he could have given up the role. And even if he could have, I don’t see how Will could. You say “someone else” must take over the role. Um, who? Why? How does this work? Where in this film does this come from?

Assuming I’m correct, this, as my grandfather used to say, stinks out loud. Maybe it’s meant to be grandly romantically tragic, but it falls totally flat.

In the first place, it was lame that Jones even got the drop on Will. In the second place, plotwise, it would have made much more sense for, say, Bootstrap Bill to stab the heart. I don’t know what the filmmakers were going for, but as far as I can see they went badly off course and got hopelessly lost.

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Re. The <i>Magdalene Sisters</i> Controversy

Who are you to judge what is a good state of mind as far as creative judgement is concerned? It seems to me that you want creative judgement to be watered down to please the palette of ponses who have experienced nothing of hardship.

What do people do who feel rage in their hearts and minds to advertise their cause? This film was excellent.

It did not need the “other side”. Because the “other side of the argument” supports the beatings and abuse, mental torture and crimes against humanity that the catholic church have supported for centuries.

This film was not the party political broadcast you might have wanted but it was true, real, disturbing and educational.

Don’t draw analogies with Nazis about this film you very stupid person.

What is with the sudden rash of new Magdalene Sisters hate mail? (“Hate mail” in this case in part because of your closing sentence — certainly not all disagreement constitutes hate mail; for contrary examples, see the next exchange, or my previous mail column.) Oh, I see Film4 recently broadcast the film. Well, that explains it.

How have you misread me? Let me count the ways.

I never said I wanted “the other side of the argument.” I am not aware that there is any “argument” or any “other side” to be presented. I certainly did not use those words in my review, even though you use them in quote marks as if I did. I am not aware of anyone who “supports” the abuse that occurred in the Magdalene asylums, as you allege. If you can produce anyone who supports it, I would like to know. But I don’t think you can. So there is no “argument” and no “other side” that I am aware of.

You are 180 degrees wrong about my wanting Mullan to “water down” what occurred. On the contrary, it was Mullan himself who already said that he did water it down in his film, and I am quite willing to grant that he did, but I never said he should do that, nor do I think so. On the contrary, I think he could have — and should have — made his film more devastating than it is. I think he should have made it a genuinely devastating and morally serious indictment against the abuses in the Church, instead of what it is, which is agitprop substituting cardboard movie villains where there should have been genuinely wicked human beings.

For what it’s worth, it is not only religious critics who recognize the film’s propagandistic excesses. For example, see Ed Gonzalez’s excellent review. I think I’ve read Ed describe himself somewhere as an atheist; certainly he’s no fan of the Church, though he seems to me to have a certain respect for or at least semi-sympathetic understanding of religion. He is also one of the sharpest and most interesting critics out there, though I wouldn’t recommend all his reviews to my readers (certainly not without a content advisory).

Finally, if you were right about me only wanting to see “party political broadcasts,” it would follow that I would never recommend films that criticize or attack the Church and the faith. But there are such films that I do recommend. So you are wrong about me. However, believe what you like.

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Re. The <i>Magdalene Sisters</i> Controversy

You wrote, “It’s a tragedy that the enormity of what went wrong at the Magdalene asylums has been trivialized by cheap manipulation.” I disagree. No healing happens in a society without truth. The director’s responsibility was to open the discussion. The fact that we are writing and talking about it means that we can begin to care for this wound.

Thanks for writing. Whether or not you disagree with me, I’m not entirely sure I disagree with you, at least completely.

I am willing to grant that some good may be accomplished by The Magdalene Sisters. I agree that where abuse has occurred it is important to talk about it, and said as much in my review.

At the same time, just because a subject is worth talking about, it doesn’t follow that any film whatsoever that raises that subject is automatically good, or that it does all the good it could or should have done, or even that it does more good than harm.

I sometimes hear this line of defense from advocates of Michael Moore (“At least he’s getting people talking about it”) and even the likes of The Da Vinci Code, but I find this profoundly unconvincing. A filmmaker’s responsibility does not begin and end with “getting people talking about it.”

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Re. Just Like Heaven

My children asked to watch Just Like Heaven so we went to ‘Screenit’ to look up the review and based on the description of the sexual scene we decided it was not worth watching even at risk to our own purity let alone our teenagers. Then, our children came to us after reading your review of Just Like Heaven arguing that your review is applauding the movie and giving it a ‘thumbs up’… comparing it to Return to Me.

My husband and I are trying to be discerning and responsible as well as balanced parents to assure our older children, especially our teens, continue to value our word and our direction. We watched the movie and we were shocked and outraged at your review. Based on the review from ‘Screenit’, we would not have even subjected ourselves to this movie except for the fact that you encouraged others to watch it via ‘decent films’. Because of our children’s strong desire to see this film, based on your encouragement, we told them we’d preview it for them.

We’d call the scenes we viewed “pornographic” and very harmful. Although the immoral scenes were very few and far between that made it almost worse because ones guard is down and unsuspecting of such a thing. One does not forget the visual — it is why impure visuals are so harmful to the mind and soul. Instead, you passed these harmful scenes off lightly.

You are losing your credibility. Your review is disturbing and scandalous and misleads your viewers. Just like Heaven did have very entertaining parts and we enjoyed much of it but it is truly sad to see such a well done movie with awesome actors and a great story line ruined by the porno type sexual content thrown in. Far worse than our disappointment in the movie is our outrage at your promoting the movie and encouraging all to view it by your misleading and incorrect review.

We urge you to retract your review and apologies to the public emphatically. You have led astray millions or people and risked their purity. We are praying for you and for the Decent Films company for this will truly harm the company if it is not rectified. If we don’t see some sort of retraction then we feel we need to spread the truth about the movie, but more so the risk associated with trusting decent films reviews; namely reviews written by you.

Thanks for writing with your concerns. Here is what I wrote about the scene in question:

  1. “the film does include some decidedly unchaste behavior from a supporting character”
  2. “[The film is] not without drawbacks. … the aforementioned unchaste behavior from a supporting character, a temptress neighbor of David’s, goes further than it needed to (though nothing happens and her behavior isn’t condoned).”
  3. And, from the content advisory: “a crass attempted seduction.”

I stand by that three-part description as an accurate caveat regarding a scene that, as advertised, is a “drawback” in the film and “goes further than it needed to” in depicting the neighbor’s “decidedly unchaste” behavior.

I also think that it is one unfortunate scene in a surprisingly pro-life film with a lot going for it (and I’m glad to read that you did enjoy much of the film).

The scene is unfortunate, enough to warrant a “minus‑1” (leaning problematic) in the moral-spiritual rating and to downgrade what would otherwise be an A‑minus review to a B‑plus. But it is not such an obstacle to make me wish the film hadn’t been made or that I hadn’t seen it, or to make me feel that it shouldn’t be recommended to others, with due qualifications.

I understand and respect your having a more negative reaction to the scene than I did. Nobody in the world has to agree with any review I’ve written; I don’t want readers who just agree with whatever I’ve written. My work is intended to help readers make up their own minds about films, not to tell them what to think.

I do wonder why you were so shocked at the scene, since you must have had a pretty good idea what was in it after reading ScreenIt. I encourage all my readers to check ScreenIt for detailed content advisory info (ScreenIt is prominently featured in my Links section), but detailed content advisory info is not the function of my site (ScreenIt is already doing a good job on that score).

More importantly, you describe the scene in question as “pornographic” and “porno type sexual content.” I don’t know what “porno” means to you, but here is what it means to me:

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. (Catechism of the Catholic Church §2354)

By this standard, the scene in question cannot remotely be called “pornographic.” There is no sexual act real or simulated. No explicit nudity. No conjugal act to be perverted. No intimacy giving between partners displayed to third parties. To call this “porno type sexual content” in my opinion diminishes the true evil of pornography (though, again, the scene is unfortunate and gratuitous as noted above).

To address a few minor points from your email: There is no “Decent Films company.” I am just one guy, a husband and father of five with a regular 9-to-5 non-film-related job, who is doing what he can in his off hours to promote both moral literacy and film literacy among Christians and others.

Also, for what it’s worth, while my work reaches a respectable audience, I’m hardly in a position to lead “millions” anywhere, whether “astray” or in a positive direction. I’m not that important a writer!

You may find my article “What are the Decent Films?” helpful as regards the goals of my site and the moral principles behind my reviews.

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Re. Dead Man Walking

In the review of Dead Man Walking you said “The victims’ families’ grief-stricken refusal to forgive is understandable…”, and I just wanted to know what exactly you meant by that. Aren’t we as Christians obligated to forgive those who seek our forgiveness?

Wow, is that old Dead Man Walking capsule still out there? That thing is older than the website. I really should update it one of these days. (Like a lot of things I should do…)

To answer your question, it is certainly the case that we must be willing to forgive all who wrong us — not only if they seek our forgiveness, I think, but even if they don’t.

At the same time, for our fallen human nature this is possibly one of the most difficult demands Christian charity makes of us. That people should not only fall short of it, but even find it incomprehensible that it should be asked of them, even to the extent of finding it offensive and outrageous that those whom they consider unforgivable actually receive the forgiveness of others, is entirely understandable.

In calling it understandable, I don’t mean that the families aren’t wrong by the demands of Christian charity. I do mean that I understand completely why they feel that way, and I would not judge them for it. I can even imagine myself in their shoes at least feeling the same way they do — though I pray God I would not allow those feeling to determine my response, and would offer forgiveness regardless how I felt.

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