Vicky Cristina Redux
Woody Allen has an audience. How do I know this? Because numbers don’t lie.
Despite playing on only 700 screens this last week, his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, sits in the number ten slot on the boxoffice charts—up one slot from the previous week. And when it comes to per-screen take, the film is at number two with over $4000 per screen. And number three is a good ways behind.
Is the film a runaway hit? Not by any means, of course. Still building an audience after three weeks in release, however, and taking in over $12 million so far in the U.S. alone, it’s a solid, solid success. It’s connecting with audiences, and they’re telling their friends.
The week after the film’s opening, I received the following email from journalist Libby Maeder:
Here’s part of what Maeder had to say in her columns at the East Aurora Advertiser and Elma Review:
There’s no doubt that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a tough movie for any critic to review (as I acknowledged in my own piece) given that Woody Allen’s got so much baggage attached. And now that he’s in his “European” phase, things are just getting murkier, I think. It’s hard to know how much he has personally invested in his stories from abroad, and how much he’s just enjoying having his extended world tour (in the company of Scarlett Johanssen and other young stars) financed by movie studios.
But Maeder’s point about the ads is particularly interesting. I avoid trailers, and I don’t watch TV much, so I hadn’t seen them—but it doesn’t surprise me. More and more, what used to be considered a “cosmopolitan” aesthetic is becoming unthinkingly mainstream.
I was just at a major new shopping mall the other day, and it has not only a Victoria’s Secret (which are pretty much ubiquitous these days) but three other shops also pretty much exclusively devoted to women’s slinky underwear. One of them is even styled after a New Orleans brothel, complete with a stoop, theme-park-ride-styled queuing areas, uniformed “hosts” who offer you a personalized greeting, and a series of darkened, spotlight-lit rooms reminiscent of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion… with thongs.
And then, of course, there’s the documentary America the Beautiful, which pointed out that the year women finally got voting rights in America was also the same year as the first national beauty pageant.
I remember walking out of Risky Business because I was offended on behalf of all the women in the audience who were just enthralled with being objectified as either hookers or shrews. Nearly thirty years later, in the era of Girls Gone Wild, women apparently are just as happy having Woody Allen paint them as either misguided prudes or misguided hedons.
I liked what Darrel Manson had to say about the nihilism of VCB at Hollywood Jesus:
Manson picked up, as I did, on Allen’s ambivalence about worldliness and sexual abandon. Still, as Maeder notes about the film’s ads, both the director and the studio are more than happy to exploit women along the way. And where are the men in the midst of all this? The tacit assumption still seems to be that men are just going along for the ride… and enjoying every minute of it.
I honestly don’t understand why women continue to view sexual exploitation as empowerment. It must be funner to play that game, I suppose, than to invest oneself in “the world of men.”
Being exploited, after all, at least means being pampered—and it’s got to at least feel like being wanted.
Don’t Knock Marshall!!
Paula Mills writes:
We’re sorry Paula didn’t feel that our review did the town of Marshall justice; but we’re not clear if she feels the film did Marshall justice, either.
It’s the film’s job to convince those who are not from West Virginia, those who do not know folks from Marshall—and in particular, those who do not come from a town whose residents’ lives begin and end with football—that football itself could heal the town’s wounds.
Mike Smith did a fine job of writing about why he felt the film did not do that. Sometimes trying too hard has the same effect of not trying hard enough.
But obviously, Mike’s opinion represents only one viewpoint. Others have disagreed with Mike; and now that the film is out on DVD, even more folks will get a chance to decide for themselves not whether football actually saved Marshall, but whether the film convinces us that it did—or could.
Getting the Word Out on Amazing Grace
We’ve received more email about Amazing Grace than just about any other film we’ve covered in the last eight months. By and large, reaction to the film has been very positive—but some folks don’t quite understand what Walden Media is doing in marketing this film through its
One reader, Neil Mammen, wrote:
Admittedly, Walden Media is not primarily pushing Amazing Grace through its usual promotional channels: schools and churches. In part, this is because the films released under the Walden label are based on books which are known commodities to wide audiences, and schools and churches are the most convenient avenues that Walden has to tap into those audiences.
Why not do this with Amazing Grace? First, it’s not based on a best-selling children’s book beloved by educators and/or pastors. Second, it’s adult fare distributed though daughter company
So what are the primary marketing channels that
Believe it or not, one of them is the heavily secularist art-house audience. The press pass I was issued was to an exclusive screening for Seattle International Film Festival members. I was stunned, thinking, “This has got to be the most hostile audience imaginable for this film! These are folks used to applauding stuff like
Another promotional avenue being exercised for this film is a coalition of human rights and slavery-awareness organizations, such as International Justice Mission. The idea, apparently, is getting word about the film directly into the hands of people who have already demonstrated that they care about the issue—not trying to use the film to raise awareness with others.
I do talk to Flaherty once every year or so (through publicist-arranged phone calls), so I can assure our readers that Walden’s promotional strategies are quite deliberate, and very cannily accurate in reaching a film’s intended audience.
So I have two observations.
First, the fact that certain people have no idea that the film is about the abolition of slavery tells me that these people probably aren’t Walden’s intended audience. And that tells us something about such people’s natural interests (and I don’t mean that as an insult).
Second, the fact that Walden has judged that the Church is not the intended audience for this film is pretty damning. Secularists, it appears, are generally more concerned about social justice than the Church, it would appear. In this day and age, we’re too busy being preoccupied with abortion and homosexuality to be bothered much by the oppression of fellow human beings. It was so different two hundred years ago.
I share Neil’s concern. But the movie seems to be holding its legs pretty well, so Walden’s strategy may be paying off. They’ve reached their natural audience for the film first, which is allowing the film to stay in the theaters. That gives a chance for the word to get out to those who aren’t normally invested in the slavery issue.
Three Cheers for Ultimate Gift
Sheila Dean wrote:
Well, it’s tough to do much once a film leaves the theaters—and very often, there’s not even much you can do when the film is still playing, because distributors often book certain films for fixed runs no matter what boxoffice returns look like. It’s a pipeline capacity problem: only so much room for so much product on the screens, and something (potentially) juicier can push something pretty decent out of the theater in spite of a successful run.
But this may be a small secret: most films these days actually make more money off their DVD releases than off their theatrical runs—so keep up the word of mouth about The Ultimate Gift if you liked it. The more people who hear about it, the better DVD sales will be, and it’s a lot easier to keep DVDs stocked than it is keeping a movie onscreen.
Check out Video ETA for up-to-date plans for The Ultimate Gift’s DVD release. It’s currently slated for August.
Amazing Grace Redux
Zachry Kincaid sent in the following about last week’s review of Amazing Grace:
I liked your Wilberforce piece, particularly your points on the storytelling and your analysis of how the film story evolves. But what do you think of the fact that they got the ending historically wrong?
Over at the Matthew’s House Project, Zach explains what he means.
Wilberforce died before he knew the results [of his efforts]. It was a month after his death before Parliament passed his Slavery Abolition Act. … That’s where the new film comes in and corrects that sad point of Wilberforce’s life. With no note that stands contrary to the representation that clearly appeals to a Spielberg trained American public, Wilberforce is present and fully alive when the vote finally goes his way.
Zach raises a good point, and not just for historical reasons. It’s as much an indictment of the Church as it is of Hollywood.
First, it’s worth pointing out that I called Amazing Grace “beyond admirable” as a “history lesson.” That was probably disingenuous of me, as I was trying to be complimentary and knew full well that an “admirable history lesson” is not the same thing as “good history”—any more than an “admirable Sunday School lesson” is the same thing as good theology.
Consider the watered-down versions of the stories of David and Goliath—or David and Bathsheba—that VeggieTales serves up and Christians swallow whole. Saturday morning fun, Sunday-morning values, right? Well, only if entertaining little white lies are part of your Sunday morning routine. And they are, for most of us.
Hebrews 11 tells us what real warts-and-all faith looks like:
Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
Just like Wilberforce—that is, the real, historical Wilberforce.
So yes, Zach’s got a point. If the story of Moses, for instance, was retold a la Amazing Grace, Moses would enter the Promised Land, and wouldn’t disappear graveless up on the mountain. If David got this cinematic treatment, he’d build the temple, not Solomon. Our Sunday School teaching isn’t that bad, fortunately. But it’s often times not a great deal better.
Without a doubt, Amazing Grace gets it wrong. But it’s an inspiring movie, not a historical document—nor even a watered-down Sunday School lesson. And who is the Church to cast stones, particularly?
Update: Further conversations between Zach, readers, and me reveal the source of the confusion. While technically the film does not portray passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, it’s easy for viewers to get the impression that the film’s climax was in fact the climax of the anti-slavery battle, when in fact it was not. The legislation featured in Amazing Grace was merely the first successful salvo in a battle that continued for many more years, culminating in the abolition of slavery shortly after Wilberforce’s death. More than one of our readers helpfully pointed out the distinction.
The Queen Redux
Jeffery Overstreet emailed me a few questions about Helen Mirren’s performance in The Queen as part his prep for a year-end Top 25 listing over at Looking Closer. Here are his questions, and my responses.
This really is a wonderful, career-crowning role for Helen Mirren, isn’t it? What is it, do you think, that she does that sets her apart from so many other actresses?
In general, I’m the wrong guy to ask about that. Historically, I have not been keen on Mirren. I was already a pretty jaded moviegoer by the time The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover came out, so it seemed pretty sniggeringly sophomoric to me. Sadly, the film journals I was reading about that time started trumpeting Mirren as the cat’s meow, so I began associating Mirren, subconsciously, with sophomoric, self-important, sniggering, arthouse enlightenment. It was patently unfair, I’m sure, but there it is. (Her earlier complicity, like so many other actors of repute, in Guccione’s Caligula didn’t help my opinion, either.) So The Queen was like lifting blinders off for me. I’m probably due for a critical reassessment of her earlier work. (I still don’t care for her off-screen persona, though, however “real” that may be.)
Some found the symbolism of the stag too heavy-handed… just a simple plot device to help the Queen find some sympathy for Diana. I thought, however, that it might also be cathartic to the Queen, as if the magnificence of the royal history might be the thing that was lost, and that she was mourning for the monarchy and its dignity. Did you find the film simplistic or heavy-handed at all?
If not for the final touch, I think I’d have found it simplistic. (And I wish I could have talked about this in my review, but it would have been a spoiler…) But when she hears of the stag’s death, takes time out from preparations to return to London, and drives over to see the beast dressed out and decapitated… Well, at that point the device becomes not merely a simple-minded means of commenting on the press pursuit of Diana, but also a more sophisticated means of addressing the reverse classism of disdain for the royal family. After all, what has been easier to take potshots at the royalty for, during the last hundred years or so, but those silly royal hunts? Yet in reality, those who have turned their back on the monarchy have just traded in one silly kind of hunt for another. So Frears takes the device, bends it back on itself, and it becomes a unifying symbolism for multiple levels of commentary and critique. Brilliant.
It’s a rare film that shows us two sides of a conflict and allows us to sympathize powerfully with both. There’s something… wow, I almost want to say “Christian”… about this movie. Call it a “work of reconciliation,” if you will. We start out chuckling at the seeming lunacy of the Queen’s formality and the perpetuation of such an outdated institution. And somehow, Frears masterfully brings us into some measure of respect and, for some, even admiration. What was your experience of that journey? How did he do it?
Well, the stag was for me the central device. And given the mythic associations of the stag for Britons, I rather imagine that Frears did intend a spiritual dimension to that as well, which may be some of what you sense. Of course, the other part of Frear’s success on that level has got to be the script, which demands that QEII comes around to respect Blair, too. I dare say that a Godly value—not a Christian one, necessarily, though—is seeing value in things with which we disagree, even despise. Think, for instance, of the way in which Scripture can condemn King David through the voice of the prophet Nathan, and yet see that, given the passion of David’s repentance, he was still “a man after God’s own heart.”
One of the elders at my church is fond of the refrain, “But this is not the end of the story!” Too often, in real life or in our critique of art, we pass judgment on the basis of thinking that we are seeing the end of the story when, in fact, we are not. We are only getting a look at a part of the story, and an intermediate end, perhaps, to that one episode. But according to Scripture, mercy triumphs over judgment—and that’s because Godly mercy really knows what the end of the story is! What Frears accomplishes here is achieving a unique glimpse into two opposing stories—and being merciful to each, through each other.
What could filmmakers… perhaps especially Christian filmmakers… learn from this?
Not being afraid of those moments that require mercy, but without passing judgment. A movie like Alpha Dog, for instance, could very easily have been made by a Christian from that perspective, without changing a thing about it. At the end of that movie, the character played by Sharon Stone rages against God, saying, “If He’s got some great plan for my life, He’d better show me—’cause I’m not seeing it.” And that’s a completely legitimate artistic vision, if we remember that “this is not the end of the story.” Stone’s character speaks from the depths of grief. Alpha Dog, in its own way, tells two thirds of Job’s story—but it doesn’t tell it all, and doesn’t need to.
On the flip side, Facing the Giants was criticized by Christian reviewers because it ostensibly sold the “health and prosperity” gospel. Not at all. Again, Taylor’s spiritual and material turnaround is only a part of his story, and the film itself never promises that Coach Taylor and his wife will never again face trials or poverty.
Christian storytellers should feel equally comfortable telling stories of hopeless despair or boundless joy (as they feel called to do so), without fear of being called a degenerate on the one hand or a Pollyanna (or heretic) on the other. The question should simply be: how well, in 100 minutes or so, can one part of God’s story—the human story—be told? It’s up to preachers and teachers (and parents and critics) to help fill in the rest of the story.
Do you have a favorite moment that sticks with you from this film?
Well, it’s a small one, really—when Charles travels to Paris to positively identify Diana’s body. When he goes into the room, the camera—which has been following him down the hall—comes to a halt outside the door. Charles passes in alone, and the camera, still in the same shot, lingers outside. Frears knows where to draw the lines of propriety, and consciously calls our attention to our culture’s insatiable appetite for crossing them.
Painted Veil Redux
I’ve been taken to task for taking Naomi Watts for granted, for not highlighting her work as Kitty Fane. In my review of The Painted Veil, I remarked that “Kitty’s transformational arc is understandable—perhaps because of its predictability,” while calling Edward Norton’s turn as Walter Fane “the real treat of this film.”
One reader responded, “Just as in the novel, where Kitty was on every page, this film is the story of Kitty—yet you’ve commented in great length about Walter. How about Kitty and the performance of the lead, Naomi Watts?”
Another reader, John, went even further:
It is obvious that Naomi Watts’ work is being taken for granted. Her ironic or sarcastic remarks (from Allure magazine), which have been widely published recently, show she probably agrees (but they should be taken in context). Why not act in a dumb romantic comedy and go for the big bucks? … Run your site as you wish. Just don’t take Watts for granted in the future.
First, it’s absolutely true that my review does not do Watts’ performance justice. Guilty as charged. And I really did feel bad about that, as I was writing the review, because I have not previously been overly impressed by Watts. In The Painted Veil, however, any portrayal of Kitty Fane would be critical to the film’s success; if Kitty doesn’t work, Walter doesn’t even matter.
So here it is: Naomi Watts here gives what is probably one of the top two or three female lead performances of the year. She carries the film, and carries it superbly. For me, only Helen Mirren in The Queen has been better.
While my review undersells Watts, however, I don’t think it undersells Kitty. Just as the movie does, my review begins and ends with her; I describe the film as “the tale of Kitty Fane’s journey toward love, loss, and restoration”; and observe that “this is a story told almost entirely from Kitty’s point of view.”
So why didn’t I devote more of my word limit to Watts? Why focus so much on Walter and Norton? As misguided as my thinking may have been, I wanted to shed some light on the part of the film that I suspected would puzzle most moviegoers. I wanted to discuss the meaning of the film more than the performances.
Oddly, I also anticipated that Norton was more likely to be snubbed in reviews than Watts. My colleagues in Seattle are always very high on Watts, and Norton’s—here—is the weaker performance. So I also wanted to highlight what I perceived as the “underdog” on this project. As it turns out, I was wildly wrong on this count.
Thanks to an extremely active publicist, Norton seems to be getting the lion’s share of the press on this project. That’s too bad, because Watts does shine here. And I’m sorry to have contributed to the collective snub.
Thanks to John for further bringing my attention to this slight.
Movies and Relativism
David Nedostup asks, “How do you fight relativism in the battle for values and ethics? Is the disease sin?”
The first solution to relativism is knowing what we believe. Really knowing it—not taking what we’ve been taught for granted, but really seeking out the truth. In the Bible, the church at
The second key, as a former pastor and mentor advised, is knowing why we believe what we believe. In other words, sure there’s sound doctrine; but what difference does it actually make? Faith is not merely a sterile intellectual proposition. God doesn’t just want us to assent to his lordship; he wants to transform us by the renewing of our minds! So if our faith really hasn’t made any difference in our lives, it’s easy for other doctrines to sound equally (or more) appealing.
Third is abandoning the politically correct blind adherence to the value of tolerance. As even the staunchly atheist G. B. Shaw observed, every society is founded on intolerance. A society is, in fact, defined by what it will not tolerate: incest, cannibalism, rape, smoking, holocaust denying, and so on. Some things are simply not acceptable to a given group of people; if all things were acceptable, society would cease to exist.
Fourth is a realization that Christianity doesn’t offer the definitive word on ethics. Competing systems of thought also offer reasonable bases for ethical behavior. What they don’t offer, though, is spiritual aid to overcoming the basic human brokenness that defeats merely intellectual ethical commitments. Without the Holy Spirit, we are all doomed to be ruled by “the flesh,” as Paul describes in Acts 7. But as Paul makes clear in both Acts 6 and Acts 8, the Holy Spirit trumps baser human instincts. And as far as I know, no other religion or system of thought offers the Holy Spirit to all who believe.
So yes, the “disease,” if you will, really is sin—fundamental human fallenness.
With regard to watching movies and dealing with these issues, the above four points provide the basis for critical evaluation, from a theological point of view. From an artistic point of view, I’d offer four more points to consider.
First, no movie can possibly tell the whole of God’s story—not even The Passion of the Christ. The best we can hope for is some glimpse of a portion of the Good News. From this standpoint, almost every movie will seem relativistic, to some degree. The Passion, for instance, didn’t address human sinfulness at all. So one might conclude, from just watching that movie, that Christianity is all about suffering and sacrifice. It isn’t, of course; and Gibson’s movie doesn’t make that statement. But that’s how the perception of relativism in art can work.
Second, whatever small glimpse of truth we might get from a film cannot be unilaterally applicable. This is because we are not all at the same point in our spiritual journeys—either audience members or filmmakers. For example, a violent and mildly vulgar film called Better Luck Tomorrow opened up an atheist friend to a serious discussion about
Third, when dealing with art, remember the idea of limited perspective. In movies, this means we’re only getting one person’s point of view; sometimes it’s the director’s point of view, sometimes it’s one of the characters’ point of view. But that can’t be taken for granted, and it needs to be worked out carefully. Characters don’t always speak for their creators. I’m a writer myself, and can guarantee that this is a fact.
Fourth, movies are designed to manipulate. I always advocate that Christians should exercise discernment with films the way the Bereans exercised discernment with Paul’s teaching. Film is a complex artform. Its methods and language are nearly inescapable in our culture; and while we might understand the syntax of that language intuitively, it doesn’t hurt to study it, too. That way, when we run across movies that are the cinematic equivalent of Faulkner’s prose (as opposed to Hemingway’s) we’ll have some clue about what those films are actually trying to tell us.
That’s probably way more of a response than you were looking for; but thanks for asking!
Another View of Marie Antoinette
Brian Overland had the following feedback on our review of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette:
Brian brings up a very good point—and he’s in good company, too. Most Hollywood-insider publications have made similar observations, and have been able to back them up with very specific connections between Coppola’s fictive Marie and her own upbringing.
From PTP’s perspective, this view is particularly helpful because it’s the antithesis of an us-vs.-them philosophy. Definite distinctives do exist—but the one truth about all humanity is that none of us is perfect. And in its own way, Antoinette communicates as much truth about one unique human condition as Emperor did—or as much as Born into Brothels.
Good to hear from you, Brian!
An Open Invite
We love your questions, whether they’re about specific movies, specific artists, or what we’ve said about them.
Please feel free to contact us with your questions. If you give us permission, we’ll publish your question—and our response—here on this page. And if you don’t, we’ll respond to you in private anyway…
Thanks for reading!