J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for September, 2007

Drums Along the Mohawk

Posted by J on September 29, 2007

Frontier life is a favorite dreamland of the typical American historical narrative. Its cinematic depiction never needs to be true, and it never needs to be realistic, but it does have to strictly conform to contemporary expectations. Fittingly, you get what you pay for with John Ford’s 1939 Drums Along the Mohawk. It’s the ultimate stereotype of frontier life, complete with drunken Indians, log cabins, and a whole lot of the American flag. Given contemporary political and social attitudes, there’s a lot to offend everyone. Show this at a diversity rally, for instance, and you could start a riot.

Now, to be fair, we should consider the historical moment of the movie’s release. Ford made Drums Along the Mohawk at a time when American avoidance of WWII was a fairly popular idea. And frankly, who could disagree with that, seeing as how the Stalinists and the Nazis were about to obliterate each other well in advance of Pearl Harbor? The problem of American entrance into WWII is taken up by Drums Along the Mohawk, but that topic is distanced by the historical setting of the movie: upstate New York circa 1776. Ford is in favor of American entrance into war, sort of. Basically, he shows how national defense–and defense of Freedom with a big capital F–is of utmost importance against the tyranny of oppressors. These oppressors, of course, are no less than Evil Incarnate. They include Indians and British stooges, led by a man with an eyepatch, but they might as well be Nazis or Orcs or Imperial Stormtroopers.

(Yes, it’s always the handicapped who are the most evil of all. Whether the handless Captain Hook, the legless Long John Silver, the six-fingered man in The Princess Bride, the eyeless man in this movie, the asthmatic Darth Vader . . . we could go on. When you see a deformed individual in an older story, you can bet he’s a little bit twisted. More fuel for the diversity rally riot. But we digress.)

Anyway, this upstate New York frontier–derived from the pages of history books–is about as real as Middle-Earth. For instance, our wealthy main characters, Gilbert and Lana Martin, get married in Albany and head straight to their backwoods log cabin. Why they leave the good life for the rugged life, we never find out. Then, as soon as they get to where they’re going, there it is, the log cabin, already built and ready for family life. No hardships, no troubles, it’s all rich and plentiful out in the backcountry.

Later, two drunken Indians show up in the house of the sassy widow, Mrs. McKellar. They take several swigs from a jug, as Mrs. McKellar upbraids them for setting fire to her house. She commands them to take her precious bed out of the house, which they both attempt to do, while drunk. Several minutes later, the entire Mohawk valley experiences an Indian invasion. Whether all 2000 of them are plastered or not the movie never says, though a number of them get hit by 18th century rifles firing from several hundred yards away.

Now, if you like this sort of thing, go for it. Frankly, despite our lack of sensitivity, we were annoyed with the portrayals of the following:

1) Gilbert and Lana Martin’s marriage. This is adequately symbolized by one moment, wherein Gil proudly places a cane above the fireplace, given to him because “if women act up, they need beatin’!”

2) The Indians. Either they’re drunk or they’re comic relief. There’s a Christian Indian, the only friendly one (looking more Apache than Iroquois), who constantly shouts “Hallelujah!” like Sloth from The Goonies.

3) The Reverend Rosenkrantz. He acts like a pious fraud and it’s supposed to be funny. For instance, during a sermon he advertises for a general store and then announces a that there will be a military conscription, concluding while praying to God, “Any man failing to report to duty will be promptly hanged. Amen.” Sounds like John McCain’s dream pastor.

4) The weeping and wailing over the consequences of militarism. This is a tradition that goes back at least to Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, where the people who froth at the mouth for battle have to, at some other time, tell us how horrible war is. It always seems short-sighted or hypocritical, and it seems doubly so when Henry Fonda is reading his lines.

There’s more ridiculousness where that came from. As we said, there’s something to offend or annoy anybody. We first saw this movie in a 7th grade history class in public school, so we’ve had two different reactions to it. Back then it was boring. Today, it’s dumb and it’s boring.

Entertainment: 3
Intelligence: 0
Morality: 4 (some simplified heroism, but moronic characterizations of everybody)

Posted in Period Drama, They Spent Millions on This? | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Eragon

Posted by J on September 29, 2007

Three minutes into Eragon, we needed a map and a scorecard. The voiceover narrator told us that someone was fighting someone in magical land XYZ, and that there were dragons involved. Beyond that, we were lost. And we remained lost throughout the entire movie. When the credits rolled, we couldn’t recall the names of the characters and weren’t sure they were even told to us. Thus, in the spirit of the Internet, we present you with the following plot summary, which is sure to thrill you on cold winter evenings:

Once upon a time, the forest world of Alagaesia was populated by dragon riders. But one of the riders, Galbatorix, desired power and so formed an army to destroy the dragon riders. He killed them all and has ruled Alagaesia for a long time, with his evil sorcerer Durza’s help. Nevertheless, a remnant of the dragon riders (the Varden) escapes to distant mountains, where they await the fulfillment of a prophecy about their reconquest of Alagaesia. So, when the orphan farm boy Eragon finds a blue stone sent by Princess Arya, he realizes that it is a dragon egg. When the dragon Saphira is born, Eragon meets his mentor Brom, and becomes the dragon rider foreseen in the prophecy that predicts the fall of Galbatorix. Eragon journeys to Varden, where he fights against the armies of Durza.

Follow that? If you’re like us, you got lost at the word “Galbatorix.” We realize the impossibility of absorbing the many names of fantasy characters and their doings. But there’s hope yet. In fact, this plot summary is actually a translation, and all you need is for someone to put it back into its original language. Well, you’ve come to the right place! We’ve provided that service to you below, free of charge. What follows is Eragon as it really is:

A long time ago, in a land called Middle-Earth, a blond orphan farm boy named Luke “Harry Potter” Skywalker found the One Ring, which looked an awful lot like a blue dragon. This Ring promised the destruction of Sauron, the evil ruler of Middle-Earth, and his henchmen Saruman, an evil sorcerer. Sauron was ticked that his One Ring was missing, so he went after Luke and his family.Thankfully Luke is not there when his uncle’s farm is destroyed by Orcs. This is a necessary plot twist, so that Luke can journey with Obi-Wan Kenobi to the hideout of the Rebel Alliance. Along the way, Obi-Wan teaches Luke how to practice good magic. They defeat a few Orcs, but then Luke gets premonitions about a captured princess (named Leia), whom Luke decides to rescue from Saruman’s fortress. Obi-Wan isn’t down with that; he wants Luke to learn more about good magic, but Luke stubbornly persists that Leia needs saving.

Anyway, Luke heads to the fortress alone, sneaks in unnoticed, then finds Princess Leia. But Saruman shows up and does a few magic tricks. He throws a spike at Luke, but Obi-Wan appears out of nowhere and sacrifices his life for Luke’s. Then Han Solo appears out of nowhere and helps Luke and Leia get out of the fortress.

Together, all three rush to the Rebel Alliance hideout in the mountains. There, they prepare for battle against Saruman and the Orc Army.

As a service to you, we will not finish our plot summary. It’s enough to know that the Forces of Good do their thing and the Forces of Evil do theirs. The ending does scream “Sequel!” but, clearly, the movie studio will have a hard time deciding whether to call it Star Wars VIII or Lord of the Rings 5.

Entertainment: 1
Intelligence: -10 (dumbest movie we’ve seen since BattleField: Earth, which is saying something)
Morality: 3

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Rocky

Posted by J on September 28, 2007

How do we choose what movies we watch? We ask, because the decision often involves so little thought. Sometimes boredom overwhelms the notion of “redeeming the time.” Or, as in our case with Rocky, one of our family members had been living in a cultural hole and hadn’t viewed any of the series’ six installments. “What!” the other said, “Never seen Rocky! Why, if had to choose ten movies that defined the American experience–whatever that is–Rocky would be one of those we’d put in one of those time capsules city governments are always burying for the people in the year 2500 to dig up.”

So, one evening we watched Rocky.

Yet this earlier comment, upon reflection, was a little presumptuous. The idea that we must “catch up with culture” by seeing every movie that everyone else has seen comes from . . . where, exactly? Social pressure? The desire to be “in”? Whatever it is, it doesn’t strike us as a worthwhile reason. The most potent argument we’ve heard in favor of watching what everyone else does is the one that says we must be culturally relevant in order to be great witnesses for Jesus Christ. Well, Peter and John had probably never read Homer and Virgil, but they did okay. True, Paul quotes a couple of pagan poets. Maybe there is something to knowing something about the magic C-word (“Culture”). So the best thing for us to do, had we not seen Rocky, is simply to ask someone else to tell us the tale. Give us the five-minute overview, beginning to end. That would save us one hour, fifty-five minutes, and we’d be a bit more relevant than before.

As for Rocky itself, the boxing ruins all. This is probably why the final five Rocky movies are so bad: they all concentrate on boxing and heavyweight titles and rematches. This is the central aspect of the final third of the original Rocky, but the best parts occur in the beginning. There, Rocky and Adrian and Pauly slowly reveal themselves as complicated characters who make inscrutable choices. Rocky, for instance, appears to be a loveable dope, yet possesses streetsmarts and a small amount of wit. Despite being a loan shark’s muscles, he likes exotic turtles and lectures teenage girls on morality. Adrian, Rocky’s love interest, is an ultra-shy pet-store worker who may or may not be interested in Rocky. All of the characters drift in and through the wasted urban landscape of 1970s Philadelphia. The dialogue in these early moments is witty and funny. Sylvester Stallone–a fairly prolific scriptwriter, we bet you didn’t know–never came close to writing anything this good afterwards, leading us to wonder if he got hit in the head too many times while making this movie.

Yet the movie collapses, we think, when Rocky is given a shot at the heavyweight title. Not only does it cheer on the fact that two men violently beat each other to a pulp in a sanctioned “sport,” but it turns Rocky and Adrian’s relationship into a sentimental, praiseworthy shack-up. When Rocky invites Adrian to his apartment, one of the shyest women in movie history gives in after two minutes of pleading (yeah, right!). Then she gives in to his advances, and then . . . The rest is left to the imagination, but Adrian eventually moves in with Rocky and, after Apollo Creed has radically altered Rocky’s face, Rocky can only think of one thing: Adrian.

The movie’s final lines, like its training scenes, are well known and have been oft repeated in pop culture. What has gone unnoticed, of course, is that while the movie ends with women and sport, it opens with Jesus Christ. The very first shot is an image of Jesus, painted on a gym wall above where Rocky fights in a local match. His image is shown here, we guess, to signify that the proceeding story is blessed. And then, except for the crucifix hung above Rocky’s bed, He simply exits the movie and we do not hear from Him again. We aren’t sure what Jesus has to do with Rocky pummeling another man and living the American dream. Perhaps Stallone, in the days of the Jesus movement, thought He was relevant. Yet there He’s left, floating above everything, while a champion fighter seeks boxing glory in five subsequent movies. Perhaps the people who dig up the story of Rocky in the year 2500 will learn something from this.

Entertainment: 5
Intelligence: 4
Morality: 1 (also, some choice language from Rocky’s trainer, among other things)

Posted in Modern Drama, Silly but Entertaining | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

Posted by J on September 22, 2007

How timely! Just as we review 3:10 to Yuma, some big movie studio puts out a remake in 2007. We aren’t sure why they’d bother to “improve” on the respectable original. Maybe they thought it needed to be spiced up: throw in plenty of crudities and now we’ve made a modern Film with a capital “F.” Add Russell Crowe, some guns, lots of blood, and more plot twists and we’ve got ourselves a multi-million dollar product. Well, we say, there’s no need to go to the theaters and add to the studio’s coffers. Just rent the 1957 version instead.

Why, you ask? There’s plenty of decency and good-heartedness in this morality tale. The plot is fairly simple. The movie opens with the notorious Ben Wade gang robbing a stagecoach and commiting murder. They waltz cockily into and out of a nearby town, but Wade himself makes a mistake by remaining in town to pursue a female. The good townsmen realize this, and stumble into capturing Wade. Worried about his gang, they make a plan: divert the gang while two of them take Wade to Contention City, where a train will appear at 3:10. Dan Evans, a farmer in financial straits, volunteers for this job, mostly because he needs the $200 reward money due to a long recent draught. The bulk of the movie is a psychological showdown between Evans and his captive Wade. Wade is a sweet-talker, a real tempter like the devil, and given Evans’ financial vulnerability, Evans can be easily tempted. Will Evans give in to Wade’s bribes? Will Wade’s gang find Wade before the 3:10 train? If they do, how will Evans get out of that predicament by himself? The morality tale part of 3:10 to Yuma is the interplay between Evans and Wade. Evans is a decent family man with a wife and two boys, and Wade is an outlaw without scruples. Each, at times, leans towards becoming like the other. The real question is, who will prevail and will he do so honorably or not?

In many ways, this is a better Western than the John Ford/Howard Hawkes fare that stereotypically defines what “The Western” is. There’s no Federalist political moral, as in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. There’s no apathy towards violence or revenge, as in every Clint Eastwood movie. There are also fittingly hilarious moments (someone had fun creating oddball lines in this script), as when the townsmen are deciding who will take Wade to the 3:10 train.

Marshal: Do I have two volunteers?
Member of posse #1: We gotta know what we’re gettin’ ourselves into.
Member of posse #2: Sure… might not be safe.
Marshal: Safe! Who knows what’s safe? I knew a man dropped dead from lookin’ at his wife. My own grandmother fought the Indians for sixty years… then choked to death on lemon pie. Do I have two volunteers?

And frankly, the lead actors (Glenn Ford and Van Helfen) fit their characters perfectly, so much so that we don’t think Russell Crowe could do a better job. The movie’s lone problem is poor editing and an abominable soundtrack. The movie’s pacing isn’t always great–it needs 15 minutes cut from it–and someone needs to write a new score that doesn’t radically exaggerate emotional tensions like all early Western soundtracks do. We would prefer that a movie studio would’ve performed these two simple tasks, instead of spending millions on a crude remake. That’s the way to turn 3:10 to Yuma into a A+ Film.

Entertainment: 5
Intelligence: 6
Morality: 10

Posted in Pretty Good, Western | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Babette’s Feast; Tender Mercies

Posted by J on September 19, 2007

When we started this website, we were already far behind. Now we’re trying to catch up, but as the weeks go by we see that we’re getting farther and farther behind. Such is the nature of work and time.

So we just wanted to say this: we highly recommend Babette’s Feast and Tender Mercies. Ignore the junk in the movie theater and go rent these. Eventually, we’ll get to reviews of them, but since our recommendations are and probably will always be few and far between, we’re putting these two out there for you.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Anatomy of a Murder

Posted by J on September 19, 2007

At the beginning of the murder trial in Anatomy of a Murder, defense attorney Paul Biegler (played by Jimmy Stewart) receives a note about his fellow prosecuting attorney. It reads:

The prosecutor is from the state Attorney General’s office. He’s a real hotshot. Look out

Unfortunately, no one was told to look out for Biegler. Anatomy of a Murder pits two slick lawyers head-to-head, both of whom are more interested in performing and winning than arriving at truth and justice. After taking on the case of a soldier who killed a bar owner because the the bar owner supposedly raped the soldier’s wife, Biegler does all he can to get his client off the hook. He winks and nods at his client, provoking the soldier to decide that he in fact killed the bar owner in a fit of temporary insanity (an obvious lie). Biegler then finds a psychiatrist who will back up the temporary insanity claim by saying that the soldier could do nothing other than kill; in a fit of extreme psychobabble, the soldier is diagnosed with “Irresistible Impulse.” Biegler then finds a 70-year old court case that allows that ridiculous diagnosis a legal precedence. Then comes the show trial. Biegler plays the jury. When his client asks why Biegler would ask a question that could be struck from the record, Biegler replies that “it’s a moral point. No jury can ignore it, even if they’re told to.”

So the trial goes. Biegler and the prosecutor play courtroom games constantly, in a movie where the trial takes up two-thirds of the running time. Even though the case and the charge are about murder, the trial turns into a long, drawn-out query as to whether the soldier’s wife was raped. Does the soldier know more? Was the wife cheating on her husband? Are the witnesses who know the bar owner concealing key information? We never find out the answers to these questions, even though it’s hinted at repeatedly that there’s more to the case than meets the eye. Anatomy of a Murder does not really mind that either. Throughout, Biegler is portrayed as a sort of hero. And in the end, when the soldier is declared “Not Guilty” for reason of temporary insanity, we’re supposed to feel good about it. But given the monkey trial we just watched and the unjust actions of the characters, the movie’s sentiments are totally ridiculous. Biblically speaking, this is calling evil good.

Looking up Anatomy of a Murder on the IMDB database, we discovered that Jimmy Stewart’s father was so outraged when this movie debuted, that he took out an ad in his local newspaper, telling people not to go see it because of its immorality. That’s an action we’d call brave. Not only does this movie not care about the morality of the procedures of its courtroom drama and the final outcome, but the idea of prurience is always in front of us. The soldier’s wife, for example, wears tight outfits, and the dialogue and the camera closeups tell us to look at them over and over (especially one key scene where she reveals her golden hair in the courtroom). Also, a key piece of evidence in the court case happens to be her underwear, which we also hear about constantly. Other words unusual for 1950s films come up: “sperm” and “intercourse,” for example. The movie’s obvious excuse is that discussion about rape and sex were necessary to in this particular court case. However, it’s quite obvious that the sexual talk was written into the script for its own sake, to give a little shock and jolt to prudish audience members, including Jimmy Stewart’s father. In this regard, Anatomy of a Murder is a lot like a 10-year old who just learned a “dirty” word; he’ll find any excuse to be able to say it. But at least a 10-year old would know better than to consider Jimmy Stewart’s character a sort of hero, which is more than can be said for the fools who wrote and directed this movie.

Entertainment: 7
Intelligence: 3
Morality: 0

Posted in Mystery, They Spent Millions on This? | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

The Ox-Bow Incident

Posted by J on September 18, 2007

“Ultimate democracy . . . is really a tyranny divided among a multitude of persons.” — Aristotle, Politics

The Ox-Bow Incident is a morality tale about modern law and justice. It is such a morality tale that two things unusual for Westerns occur. First, Henry Fonda, our main character and starring role, is subordinated to the mob that he joins. Second, the movie clearly eschews romance by quickly bringing on and whisking off a love interest for Fonda, which tells us that Politics is more important than Love here. The Ox-Bow Incident was released in the middle of WWII (1943), and frankly we were puzzled that a studio released a non-propaganda film like this. It’s even prescient about ex post facto law being applied to the Nuremberg trials. The clear difference between this movie and other Westerns is that it uses a questionable mob instead of a singular hero out for justice/revenge, which provides a nice antidote to impersonal Man-With-No-Name shoot-em-ups starring Clint Eastwood.

The story moves quickly (the 75-minute running time is rather nice for those with crowded schedules). Fonda and his sidekick ride into town and enter a saloon. Soon after, the men in the town get riled up about a reported murder outside of town. A heterogenous lynch mob forms, featuring our star, a burly old woman, a black preacher, and an ex-Confederate soldier named Tetley. Most, but not all, are bloodthirsty. When they find three men camping out in an ox-bow, a sort of kangaroo court forms. What happens next forms our law-and-justice moral. We will report no more about it, except to say that this lynch mob thinks it’s lawful. It sticks to a semblance of the legal procedures it knows, as when the sheriff’s deputy deputizes all of the mob’s members. Tetley takes on the crucial leadership role, and he demands majority rule. Despite this, the mob is clearly practicing sham justice. They eschew the Biblical rules of accepting at least two or three witnesses and presuming the accuseds’ innocence. They are, in short, a democratic tyranny.

We had the disadvantage of reading the Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel that this movie is based upon, and to us the differences between a book and its movie still applied (the one always being far better than the other). Fonda’s sidekick is the narrator in the novel, a semi-trustworthy teller of events whose injury during the course of events is meaningful and impacts his taletelling. In the movie, however, this sidekick is a pointless character who receives a pointless injury. Also, in the book Tetley is a little complicated, but in the movie he’s an inhuman monster. The C.S.A. pin always easily visible on his hat, his status as a Southern gentlemen and mob leader displaces the movie’s application of its moral, changing it from a contemporary political critique to a commentary on the history of the American South, which we’ve been beat over the head with all of our lives.

Yet the movie does do one thing better: it gets right Fonda’s response to events at the very end. As a sort of accomplice to the mob, he has a burdened conscience, and that spurs him to go beyond the actions of James 1:27. Unlike John Wayne’s and Clint Eastwood’s many film characters, this is a hero we can learn from.

Entertainment: 4
Intelligence: 6
Morality: 8

Posted in Pretty Good, Western | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Problem with Roger Ebert (and other so-called critics)

Posted by J on September 15, 2007

In his recent Answer Man column, Roger Ebert fielded an absurd question and gave his response:

Reader’s Question: My sister heard about a movie called “Corpus Christi,” in which Jesus is depicted as being gay. Is there such a movie? That would be sad.Ebert: It would be sad if it was a bad movie, not if it was a good one. A movie’s quality is separate from its subject.

If that’s the case, the potential is limitless. We could make a masterpiece about Roger Ebert the homicidal maniac. Or better: a great movie that defames Ebert’s family and friends, mocks his entire career, and jokes constantly about his past girth problems and his current health problems. Undoubtedly, if it were really great, Roger would give it four stars.

This idea, that the quality of a movie can be disconnected from its morals, has been Ebert’s fundamental presupposition for his entire working career. We have seen Ebert say again and again that “a movie is great not because of what it’s about, but because of how it’s about what it’s about.” This is the same thing as saying that the telling of the story is the only thing; a story’s contents and messages are not at all relevant. While we don’t dismiss the need to tell stories well, it’s clear that Ebert trots out the old “art for art’s sake” dictum whenever he needs it. So you want a movie about a gay Jesus? “Art for art’s sake and all beauty is truth!”says Roger. Ebert has sometimes followed this idea to its extremes, calling a nihilist’s nightmare (Pulp Fiction) a masterpiece and endlessly praising the “ground-breaking” Deep Throat (not the Watergate informant). In fact, if there’s one thing we’ve learned by reading Ebert for years, it’s that he enjoys naked women. He just likes his pornography cloaked by things that appear artsy.

Now, though Ebert says “a movie’s quality is separate from its subject,” he’s by necessity a hypocritical humanist. Roger can’t go too far in throwing out all values, or else he’d get the values he doesn’t like thrown back in his face. So of course he’s given zero stars–a very rare rating for him–to movies about which he thought the subject intolerable. The pseudo-documentary, C.S.A.: Confederate States of America, a what-if fantasy abou the Confederacy winning the Civil War, received Ebert’s utter disapproval because it came across as far too serious about its subject (even though the movie was attempting to be ironic). Similarly, Ebert castigated September Dawn for its portrayal of Mormons as murdering, intolerant fanatics because “the vast majority of the members of all religions, I believe and would argue, don’t want to kill anybody.” “There isn’t anything to be gained in telling this story in this way,” says Ebert, because “it generates bad feelings on all sides, and at a time when Mormons are at pains to explain they are Christians, underlines the way that these Mormons consider all Christians to be ‘gentiles.'” So in this case, the political and social morals that the movie depicts make a difference. Fancy that, the possibility that a movie will alter its viewers’ morals matters greatly after all! We wouldn’t want people to start hating Mormons because of September Dawn, would we? As usual, Ebert allows his liberal-humanist views to determine his movie experience and opinion, even when it counters his “a movie about anything can be great” dictum.

So morals of stories matter to everyone–even to those who say they don’t. It only depends, for the person involved, which morals a movie touts are important. For Ebert, a good movie about a gay Jesus Christ is like a good movie about hardcore porn: a “cultural triumph” that advances the causes of social progress. For almost all critics, the same is true. A movie can be good, so long as it’s socially acceptable or provocative, according with the idols of the day.

But for Christians, the entirety of Scripture lays out the rules for man-made stories by providing the moral foundations that should underlie them and by providing numerous stories that serve as capable models and examples. It probably goes without saying for you, but the Word of God is the basis for all thinking, watching, and reviewing of movies. We’ve seen many Christians give into the invented standards of secular critics, praising 300 for ground-breaking visuals or desiring to watch some actor’s stellar performance, while totally ignoring a movie’s contents and messages. Sometimes we want to let others–scriptwriters, film critics, actors who blah-blah about their new film–tell us how to view a movie. But as followers of Jesus Christ, there’s a better way: “be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” We acknowledge that this is sometimes difficult, but this is where we’d like to be. Select what movies you watch, and what stories you ingest, carefully.

Posted in Short Essays | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Cars

Posted by J on September 12, 2007

Here is a first: a Pixar movie that we completely loathed. Cars has as much charm and depth as a NASCAR race. In fact, the hint is in the bland title. Cars eschews a story (mostly) and instead produces a narrative that unfolds as if you are watching a TV channel. The “story” begins with a NASCAR race, complete with Bob Costas as an announcer and the Goodyear blimp providing the overhead cam. Then we’re told about the life of Lightning McQueen, the egotistical race car hotshot, through commercials, movie previews, and a Hollywood Insider TV show. Please. If we had wanted inanity, we would’ve flipped on the tube itself.

Equally as bad, the cars in Cars do not work as characters. They look nothing like human beings, and so they lack the expressive features of human beings that allow us to take in a range of character traits. Instead, vehicle difference is substituted for character. There is a semitruck, an old police car, a cutesy sports car (a female, obviously), and a beat-up tow truck. All of these are one-dimensional; they have the personality you would expect a semi-truck or sports car to have. Sometimes glitz is added to spice up the cars. When modified cars appear, equipped with neon lights and blaring rap music, our guess was that they’d have an ethnic flavor. And wouldn’t you know, they were cars with Mexican accents.

The main story is archetypal. Urban hotshot serendipitously ends up in the country, where he learns new life lessons and make friends with the local yokels, and when he returns to the city he is wiser and able to perform something he wasn’t able to do previously. The animated whirly-gigs and the constant noise of car engines are supposed to spice this basic story up, but there is nothing–voicework, scene, or character–that makes this particular story ingratiating or charming. Cars is as loud, flashy, and obnoxious as the NASCAR culture it is based upon. It makes Ratatouille all the more amazing, and we would rather watch it a thousand times in a row than watch Cars one more time.

Entertainment: 3
Intelligence: -1
Morality: 8 (though if it’s this stupid, is it really moral and edifying?)

Posted in Animated, They Spent Millions on This? | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

On Movie Ratings

Posted by J on September 8, 2007

It’s difficult to say whether movie ratings–G, PG, etc.–are total shams or not. On the one hand, they give you a standard by which to gauge what a movie contains. On the other hand, the standards are vague and misused, and they have changed wildly over time.

Let’s give an example. We’ve had enormous problems with PG movies from the ’70s and early ’80s, before the PG-13 rating came out in about 1985 (because of the “heart” scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). In those years, movies got shoved into either ‘PG’ or ‘R’, which apparently meant that a movie was either family-friendly or for adults only. On that basis a movie like Barry Lyndon still carries a ‘PG’ rating, even though it has a half-second long orgy scene that would make Internet pornographers proud (unfortunately, we discovered this by experience). Similarly, a so-called family movie that critics say will “make you and your kids cheer and weep”–that is, Breaking Away–contained so much “mild” profanity in the first twenty minutes that we couldn’t imagine showing it to an 18-year old (we did not finish it). And Planet of the Apes, with a G rating, contains Charlton Heston’s bare backside.

The ‘PG-13’ rating alleviated these problems only to a degree. Filmmakers can now shoot for ‘PG’ or ‘PG-13’, the optimum ratings for big-budget summer fare that will be marketed heavily to children, teenagers, and adults. No one wants a ‘G’ rating, unless the name attached to it is Pixar or Disney, because ‘G’ does not sell to all key demographic groups and will not make as much money as, say, ‘PG-13’. Meanwhile, what is considered ‘R’ today is so horrific that ‘NC-17’ has become tantamount to pornography. There are unwritten codes that the MPAA ratings board uses to separate the PG fare from the PG-13 and the PG-13 from the R. These codes, you probably have experienced, are both silly and arbitrary and the difference between PG and PG-13 matters to few anyway. In recent years the board has been including brief descriptions along with ratings. For example, Batman Begins is rated PG-13 for “intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements,” while Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is rated PG for “frightening moments, creature violence and mild language.” So what’s the difference between “frightening moments” and “disturbing images”? And what in the world are “thematic elements”?

Let’s go back in time for a moment. In the so-called glory days of Hollywood, the first several decades of the twentieth century, major studios stuck to the standards known as the Hays Code. Some of the highlights from that code are as follows:

General Principles

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Applications

  • Nudity and suggestive dances were prohibited.
  • The ridicule of religion was forbidden, and ministers of religion were not to be represented as comic characters or villains.
  • The depiction of illegal drug use was forbidden, as well as the use of liquor, “when not required by the plot or for proper characterization.”
  • Methods of crime (e.g. safe-cracking, arson, smuggling) were not to be explicitly presented.
  • References to sex perversion (such as homosexuality) and venereal disease were forbidden, as were depictions of childbirth.
  • The language section banned various words and phrases that were considered to be offensive.
  • Murder scenes had to be filmed in a way that would discourage imitations in real life, and brutal killings could not be shown in detail. “Revenge in modern times” was not to be justified.
  • The sanctity of marriage and the home had to be upheld. “Pictures shall not imply that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.” Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option.
  • Portrayals of miscegenation were forbidden.
  • “Scenes of Passion” were not to be introduced when not essential to the plot. “Excessive and lustful kissing” was to be avoided, along with any other treatment that might “stimulate the lower and baser element.”
  • The flag of the United States was to be treated respectfully, and the people and history of other nations were to be presented “fairly.”
  • “Vulgarity,” defined as “low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects” must be treated within the “subject to the dictates of good taste.” Capital punishment, “third-degree methods,” cruelty to children and animals, prostitution and surgical operations were to be handled with similar sensitivity.

The Hays Code was slowly abandoned during the ’50s and eventually was junked in the late ’60s. Clearly, none of these standards are in place today; you may see all of them violated in one movie preview shown on daytime TV. This is not, however, to say that Hollywood movies from the 1940s were necessarily more “moral” than those today, although we believe that that’s generally the case. One of the most praised movies ever, Casablanca, blatantly glorifies the thought of adultery, and we have seen a number of Westerns that do in fact glorify the killing of Indians. But the now-discarded Hays Code, compared to present-day practices, demonstrates changes in cultural temperaments. Yes, there once was a time where standards existed. This is why, as a general rule, you will be fairly safe with an “old” movie. You knew this already, but the Hays Code shows you why.

Today there is only the shadow of a code in the MPAA’s ratings, and it will not take much more cultural disintegration before G, PG, and PG-13 are totally meaningless, if they aren’t already.

What’s an adult or parent to do if official movie ratings are vague and unhelpful? We use a site called Kids-in-Mind, though we don’t have children of age to watch movies. This is for our own use because our ideal is to try to watch that which is “true, lovely, and of good report.” We wouldn’t recommend that anyone work for the Kids-in-Mind site, and we wouldn’t pay for their services if they required subscriptions. The reason is obvious: someone is watching all the junk and writing down every four-letter word and piece of skin shown. Nevertheless, as long as the information is there, we’ll use it.

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