Mailbag #24

Maleficent, Of Gods and Men, Wall-E, Forrest Gump, Wreck-It Ralph, Argo and more.

Re. Maleficent (2014)

The fact that you see the removal of Maleficent’s wings as a representation of rape or genital mutilation, in my opinion, exposes to me your “master of suspicion” attitude toward the film. The removal of her wings need not be so much a representation of spiritual rape as a death of innocence of a young girl by a man suffering from selfish concupiscence. Isn’t this indeed the state of reality we live in today in our society?

Maleficent’s innocence was stolen and she hardens her heart. The visualization of this when she sits upon her throne (which appears to be a rib cage; she is hiding inside her heart, queen of her own heart) and builds up the wall of thorns to prevent any other from entering. Can’t we all relate to this? Haven’t we all been wounded so deeply that we close our hearts?

The scene where her heart begins to soften while observing the innocence of Aurora. She is overcome with memories and puts Aurora into a sleep because she is not ready to open her heart again. It’s too painful to remember her lost innocence.

I truly am extremely disappointed in your review and the fact that you have shed such a negative light on to a movie that I see has such theological relevance.

For my reply, see “Maleficent, Rape and Sympathy for the Devil.” Link to this item

Re. Of Gods and Men

I was the monastic advisor on Of Gods and Men, and your piece is probably the best I’ve read so far. If you want to know more about the making of the movie, you should read my book (in French or Italian) Secret des hommes, secret des dieux (Presses de la Renaissance), in which I try and explain how the Holy Spirit worked throughout the whole process of this incredible movie.

The monks of Tibhirine were my friends and still are. Xavier Beauvois and his team came to meet them, and I can even witness to the fact that snow fell and melted for the final shot against all odds.

You seem to imply that only “nonbelievers” worked on this movie, but I am a devout Christian and I was there right from the beginning to the very end. I just wanted you to know because God can make himself known without our contribution, but usually He asks us to give a hand. I was blessed to be chosen here in an amazing fashion, as I explain in my book. Everything from A to Z seemed to come from Him. God bless you!

Henry Quinson, Marseilles, France

Dear Mr. Quinson,

I’m deeply gratified by your kind note. The privilege of writing about Of Gods and Men remains a high point in my critical career; I have sometimes felt as if God called me to be a film critic to write about this film, and my first 10 years on the job were preparation.

I wish I read French or Italian so that I could read your book. I have read many accounts of the movie production process, and seen the hand of God at work in some of them, but I would love to know more about the stories you have to tell about this film.

I believe you are alluding to a remark in my essay “How Catholic Is Of Gods and Men?” characterizing the film as “not made by believers for believers.” That phrase “by believers for believers” is certainly not meant to imply that no believers worked on the film; I would never presume to say such a thing about any film in the world! In this case I knew that some people involved in making the film (including, I have heard, at least one of the actors playing one of the main characters) were believers, so that was not my intent at all.

Rather, I meant to distinguish the film from the phenomenon of what we sometimes call in English a “faith-based film,” meaning a film created by a production company with explicitly religious identity and mission, very often sponsored by or affiliated with a church or parachurch organization, and written by, directed by and usually starring believers, resulting in a film that, whatever the filmmakers may have hoped would be its evangelistic appeal to nonbelievers, in fact effectively winds up “preaching to the choir” of the filmmakers’ fellow believers.

As you know, Of Gods and Men received overwhelming critical acclaim and won the Grand Prix at Cannes, among many other accolades, and did very well with the public, topping the French box office for four weeks and outperforming distributor expectations here in the United States. It is a film that speaks powerfully to audiences who do not share the monks’ faith — in part, I think, because Xavier Beauvois and Etienne Comar approached the material with the same sort of artistic objectivity that they would bring to any subject, in terms of its human interest rather than its religious significance (though of course the monks’ religious beliefs were part of that human interest). This is what I meant by “not made by believers for believers.”

Thanks again for writing. I would be happy to hear from you again.

Link to this item


Funny, how different Wall-E appears to the people who are its target. Fat people are not “symbols of ultimate decadence” — we’re real, live, human beings worthy of respect. For most of us, Wall-E functions at the same level as a minstrel show, or some vaudeville about “piccaninnies.” The most overwhelming factor in the film is its bigotry and hatred-inducing propaganda directed at a minority group. And, yet, how few reviewers even seem to notice how devastatingly we’re hated and slandered. Your “ethics” score was a +1; mine’s -10.

A friend who is a self-proclaimed fat person writes:

As a fat person, I am shocked to find out that a movie I found thoughtful, fun, entertaining, filled with heroic people who looked a bit like me was, in fact, a vicious attack on fatties like me. How did I miss that? Funny how the closest thing to a human villain is skinny, and no one is told they are ugly in the film, yet supposedly, there is a “fat people suck” message. In fact, fatness, in the context of the film just “is.” No actual judgment is ever past on body size. And the jokes have less to do with weight and more to do with inactivity. They don’t have trouble sitting up because they are fat. They have trouble sitting up because they don’t use their muscles much. You could do the same jokes with skinny people — but honestly, that would take away from the effect of “adult infants.” Babies are more often chubby. A skinny baby looks sickly to people.

The “target” of Wall-E is consumerism, sedentary behavior and screen addiction. Not fat people. In fact, there’s a science-fiction explanation for the physical condition of the humans in Wall-E: They’re shapeless blobs because of generations of bone loss in the low gravity of space.

The rhetoric of “hate” is overused in our society today, and certainly there’s no “hatred” in Wall-E for the humans on the Axiom. They are completely sympathetic, because they are all of us. They aren’t bad, they just need to be wakened from their somnolence and inspired to engage the world.

If you missed that — if you thought the baby-like humans in Wall-E were meant as a vicious, hurtful satire, that viewers were supposed to despise them — you missed the movie, friend.

Link to this item

Re. Forrest Gump (1994)

Recently I rewatched Forrest Gump for the first time in almost 20 years. Is my memory faulty, or did Zemeckis revise the plot line in this movie? I had no memory of a sex scene with Forrest and Jenny. I don’t remember a child born of that union. I remember Jenny dying of AIDS…and then Forrest goes on his run. I remember the power of the movie coming from Forrest’s unchanging ability to love unconditionally.

What I watched on the TV seemed to fall flat. It seemed to me that the Gump I saw on the TV affirmed the anti-family, anti-life culture of the 21st century rather than Christ’s assurance that “Greater love than this no man has, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Is my memory faulty, or did Zemeckis issue a revised movie to placate the culture? Maybe I see today with different eyes the same thing that I saw almost 20 years ago. But this movie today seems to me like a different movie than the one I saw in 1994.

The plot points you mention — the sex scene with Jenny, the child born of that union — were there from the beginning. What has changed are the eyes you brought to the film.

I think you’re right to see the story as morally shallow, not only because of the un-family angle but also because there is a certain genial nihilism in making Forrest the hero. Forrest succeeds not because he is good or capable, but by dumb luck. The movie is one big joke about the appearance of meaning, profundity and greatness where none exists in fact.

It was that way from the beginning, but Hanks’s appeal, the bravura special effects and the novelty initially blinded many of us (myself included) to what the film is.

Link to this item

Re. Wreck-It Ralph [video]

I’m sixteen years old and I’ve been reading your website for the past year or so. I noticed that you gave Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph only a C+. I saw it hoping against all odds that you would be wrong.

I am glad to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Though I would certainly never put the movie on par with movies such as Ratatouille or The Secret World of Arrietty, I found it an enjoyable and well-made diversion with interesting characters, impressive visuals, and fun plot twists.

You claimed that the character’s stories held no emotional gravity; I disagree. I felt bad for Vanellope when the other racers wrecked her car, I found Felix and Calhoun’s mismatched romance fun and comical, and I actually cried when Ralph was reciting the Villain’s Anonymous pledge as he fell towards the volcano.

You also complained that Vanellope was annoying, but I found her obnoxiousness to be nowhere near as potent as I expected it to be, and her banter with Ralph was charming and endearing. I also really liked the plot twist about King Candy. The idea that he was Turbo wasn’t even on the outskirts of my mind, but when it was revealed I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it coming.

Unlike many a DreamWorks movie, it was clear someone actually cared how it turned out. It had a distinctive and creative concept, a well-developed world, an interesting plot, and an engaging ensemble of characters. I don’t quite understand your negativity towards it. I would say it was Disney’s second best CGI movie, not as good as Tangled but certainly better than Bolt and everything preceding it.

Thanks for all the great work you do! I hope you don’t think this means I’m not going to read your website anymore. I love your writing and I’ll certainly continue to visit. I only wonder why you treated Wreck-It Ralph with such disdain.

I’m happy to hear you enjoyed Wreck-It Ralph more than I did. I didn’t dislike the film. I don’t think my review evinces “disdain.” You could say I reviewed Madagascar 3 or Ice Age 4 with disdain, but not Wreck-It Ralph. A C-plus review is still leaning positive, even if it isn’t entirely a recommendation.

I agree with you that regarding the impressive visuals and the clever plot twist regarding King Kandy. These are much what I expect from today’s Disney.

I don’t really agree regarding the characters. Ralph is likable enough, but his quest for a medal at all costs goes on for too long without enough self-awareness. Vanellope, though annoying, is sympathetic, but her yearning to race is thin motivation, and the amnesia device takes away anything more substantive.

Frankly, I hoped and expected to enjoy Wreck-It Ralph more than I did. (A friend whose opinion I’ve long respected told me it was better than Toy Story.) Sometimes expectations can affect a viewing experience, and it’s possible to enjoy a movie more the less one expects of it.

Of course part of my job as a critic is to try to look past such circumstances and craft a review that will stand the test of time. That doesn’t always happen, of course. Sometimes after seeing a movie repeatedly I find myself appreciating it more, until my original review seems insufficiently appreciative. Other times my esteem ebbs away over time, and the film’s flaws become more and more glaring, and my review seems too generous.

For the most part, though, I look back on past reviews and find that what I originally wrote still basically expresses how I feel today. I’m still happy with my review of Bolt, for instance — though if anything I probably enjoy more today than the first time I saw it. The love between Penny and Bolt, the cat/dog characterizations, Penny’s hilariously heartless Hollywood agent, the LA pigeons vs. the NYC pigeons: it all works pretty brilliantly.

It’s possible that over time I might come to appreciate Wreck-It Ralph more. Frankly, though, I doubt it. Counting noses doesn’t prove anything, but when enough people write to me essentially agreeing with my take on a film, it’s some confirmation that I’m onto something. Beyond that, I just feel in my critical bones that my criticisms of the film aren’t going away.

That doesn’t mean you have to agree! My take on a film is mine, and while I hope it’s useful to people, I don’t want anyone taking my opinion as authoritative. A good review offers an informed opinion that provides useful information and context on a film, and hopefully offers a place to begin thinking about a film and forming your own opinions. Some of my favorite reviews from other critics are reviews I disagree with, because they prompted me to clarify and refine my own reasons for thinking differently about the film — as perhaps you’ve done here in response to my review.

P.S. I’m delighted to hear that you’ve seen and appreciated the likes of Ratatouille and The Secret World of Arrietty.

Link to this item

Re. Argo

I must say that in the past I have always agreed with your 4-star / A reviews. With your review of Argo however I have to disagree. Yes, the movie was humorous at points and I enjoyed the inside jokes and references. But there was one major failing: The movie completely failed at making me care about the people waiting to be rescued.

I also didn’t much care for the main character that much. So at the high points of the movie, when the viewer is supposed to be full of tension, I was left in a curiously bland state. None of the characters were truly established in the movie except for the makeup artist and the producer — both very one dimensional but entertaining characters.

The movie would have been much better and worthy of your grades had either the main character or the rescued characters been established with the same flair.

After over a dozen years, I’m a little surprised to meet anyone who’s always agreed with my 4-star / A reviews!

In this case, the sticking point for you is one of the very things I like about Argo. I remember complaints like this about United 93, but I appreciate a film, particularly a historical film that is more or less about a real event, that focuses on the event — that eschews the whole mechanics of characterization, motivation, psychology, back story, character arc, etc.

In a movie of this kind, things like that can be, to my mind, a distraction — a distancing or even alienating form of fictionalization. I like the fact that we don’t get to know the Americans in hiding particularly well. I like the fact that Tony Mendez is essentially a guy in a suit. The point of the movie, for me, is what happened, not to whom it happened.

I realize not everyone relates to this kind of movie this way, but that’s how I see it.

Link to this item

Re. Dogma in <i>Dogma</i>: A Theological Guide

In your article on Dogma, you accused the film’s writer of mistakenly referring to the profession of faith as “the recession of faith,” and seemed to draw some conclusions about him based on your assumption that this was such a profound mistake. However, your assumption is incorrect. It was an intentional line, and a joke that seems to have gone over your head.

Much about the film apparently has gone over your head, but as this seems to be due to your own rigid beliefs, I see no point in trying to have a discussion about them. Your review of the film shows you aren’t capable of putting them aside (oddly enough, this is a big part of the film, which I hope hasn’t escaped you). However, this particular instance, the “recession of faith,” isn’t a matter of opinion. It was a very clear joke that you missed, likely due to the fact that you were looking so hard for mistakes. I’ll assume you don’t need the joke explained.

PS: The disclaimer at the start of the film, to any rational person, doesn’t imply that the film maker’s ideas and feelings about his religion shouldn’t be taken seriously. The disclaimer, like the film maker’s subsequent “rubber poop monster” jokes, are there because people with dangerously inflexible beliefs threatened to murder other people because of this film. So, in other words, don’t take the film so seriously that you’d hurt someone else over it. This was stated in the disclaimer, so perhaps you’re aware of that and just thought it was clever to say “oh, so this is his most personal film ever and we shouldn’t take it seriously?” If this was your intent, well, it was a swing and a miss.

You don’t read very well, do you, friend?

Link to this item