Category Archives: reviews

On Tangled, Frozen and Maleficent Hearts.

Not since _Harry Potter_ has the Catholic commentariat been so hotly divided over whether a pop culture franchise is profoundly Christian or profoundly dangerous as the controversy over Frozen. This controversy has re-erupted a bit since the release of Kenneth Branagh’s live action Cinderella, both because it contains the _Frozen_ short “Frozen Fever,” which seems to resolve a few of the issues with the first film (e.g., Kristoff and Anna are clearly a “couple”), and because it is being hailed as a positive change from the recent trajectory of Disney fairy tale movies–most notably its live-action predecessor Maleficent and, to some writers, Disney’s adaptation of Sondheim’s _Into the Woods_.
Those who take a dim view of Frozen rightly point to similar parallels between it and Maleficent. Both movies attempt revisionist approaches to fairy tales. Both involve a sympathetic backstory to a “villainess”. Both undermine the familiar notion of a “True Love’s kiss.” Ironically, in very few stories is a “kiss” the saving act, anyway. That’s a classic example of Disneyfication.

In “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” the title character is saved, not by a kiss, but by the dwarves dropping her coffin. While popular culture has the “Frog Prince” changed back by a “true love’s kiss,” in the “original” Grimm story, while he tries to get the princess to kiss him, she throws him against a wall in disgust. Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” fails. The Beast is transformed, in the “original” as well as the Disney version, by Beauty’s tears. Most “Fairy Tales” have more sophisticated endings than the modern day re-appropriations as folk tales. The notion that it’s always “true love’s kiss” is really Disney’s fault to begin with. Rapunzel and her prince end up happy ever after, but not before she bears him two children out of wedlock, and he is blinded.

Ironically, though, Andersen’s “Snow Queen” is one of the few where the spell is actually broken by a kiss. While Disney’s _Frozen_ began as an adaptation of Andersen’s story, it took on a life of its own in development, and is arguably a different story, as suggested by Disney-ABC’s _Once Upon A Time_.

While _Frozen_ and _Maleficent_ both deal with slightly revisionist themes (at least as far as Disney goes), they handle the same themes quite differently (I haven’t seen _Maleficent_ yet, but have read enough reviews and summaries to work with here). 1) _Maleficient_ takes one of the most truly evil characters in Disney, a character whose name *means* “evil,” and makes her a sympathetic character who started off “good”. Now, this in and of itself might be seen as profoundly Catholic, yet she remains the heroine. This is a contrast to Elsa, who’s never really evil. She has many parallels as a character to Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, but doesn’t even rise to his level of evil. She’s remarkably moral for someone raised in isolation who rebels and says, “no right, no wrong no rules for me” (more on that later). Elsa’s only “evil deeds” are accidental. In a slightly different narrative, she wouldn’t even be considered evil at all. For a story that is so departed from Andersen as to be an original story, and not a remake of an existing Disney property, it is hard to even call _Frozen_ revisionist. It might undermine some of the ideas taught by conventional Disney fairy tales, but it is more in keeping with the moral ambiguity and psychological complexity of the works of Perrault, Andersen and the Grimms.
2) Both _Maleficent_ and _Frozen_ betray the naivete of “two random people meet in the forest, fall in love at first sight, and live happily ever after.” Both seemingly say, “A woman doesn’t need a man to be happy,” and that men can’t be trusted. However, while in _Frozen_, Hans is a liar and scoundrel (a change made relatively late in development but hinted at throughout the film), he is contrasted to Kristoff. Though there are innuendos about the relationship between Kristoff and his reindeer Sven, the most overt line is that it “is a little outside of nature’s laws,” which suggests that Nature *has* laws–when was the last time you saw a movie, much less a kids’ movie, *mention* Natural Law, even jokingly?
For decades, Disney movies have taught little girls that a moment’s infatuation can mean the love of their life, and Christian educators and social critics have tried to emphasize that marriage should not be entered into lightly. Finally we have a fairy tale movie that shows the dangers of basing one’s decisions on emotion and infatuation, that has the main couple in a chaste relationship, and people are claiming it’s promoting homosexuality??
I have already written an extensive argument in favor of _Frozen_, so rather than repeating the points I made there, I’ll just refer you to it.
Now, all that said, this post was inspired by reading this commentary, which compares the four recent “Princess” movies and puts _Tangled_ and _Cinderella_ on one side, but _Frozen_ and _Maleficent_ on the other.
I’d say the reverse. _Tangled_, while an OK movie, is far more morally problematic than _Cinderella_: Rapunzel is kidnapped and horrifically brainwashed, yet this is brushed over. Rapunzel, who has to be suffering from Stockholm syndrome, PTSD, and any number of disorders related to being raised alone in a tower and lied to her entire life–how does she speak so eloquently?–falls in love with the first man she ever sees, like Miranda in _The Tempest_.
This “hero,” rather than a prince, is a criminal. The first time I saw _Tangled_, I kept expecting him to be an exiled prince like Aragorn in _Lord of the Rings_, but while he’s ostensibly based upon characters like Han Solo, his career is totally brushed over. He is not a rebel like Robin Hood. He doesn’t really appear to change his ways the way Han Solo does. There is no justification or repentance. He is not stealing bread to save his sister’s starving children. He’s just stealing. He takes Rapunzel to a den of thieves, and they turn out to be nice guys who are OK because they have dreams, even though they’re living in mortal sin.
The criticism of _Frozen_ is that there’s no overt “repentance” for Elsa’s attitude expressed in “Let it Go”–yet why should she? It’s a soliloquy. Nobody hears her. She herself learns the dangers of her attitudes, and her instincts about Hans–the only “mean” or “evil” thing she does is refuse to allow the engagement–turn out to be on the money. The whole point of “Let it Go” is it fulfills the first part and serves as the climax in the Aristotelian sense: the story itself shows the change in Elsa’s attitude and her realization that she is trading one imprisonment for another.

What were the writers of _The Middle_ thinking?

To the Writers and Producers of <em>The Middle</em>
What were you thinking?

In the summer of 2012, a priest-friend on Facebook suggested your program as an example of one of the few truly wholesome, family-friendly sitcoms on the air today.

For the most part, we’ve found that to be true and have become huge fans of the show.  We’ve now seen every episode in reruns or first run and have watched most of them with our children.

However, the previous two episodes  (“Valentine’s Day VI” and “The Answer”) have left us scratching our heads.

There was a very clear contrast between the wholesome relationship of Darrin and Sue, and the implied fornication of Axl and Devin.  Axl, a stereotypical “millennial” college student, attending college just because he’s expected to, with no real career goals, surprises his girlfriend with a rented bounce house, paid for by what?  Credit card debt? Then comes home the next day to brag about having “celebrated” the night before.  Darrin, who already has a decent, well-paying job, surprises Sue with a “micro-house” that is paid for, and proposes marriage.

So, what happens?  Frankie sarcastically dismisses Axl’s “bragging,” and Mike hypocritically gives him a thumbs up over fornicating with some other man’s daughter while getting enraged that Axl’s friend has proposed marriage to *his* daughter.  Frankie and Mike convince Sue that’s she’s right to want to “experience” the world and accumulate a lifelong burden of debt rather than settling down with a man who loves her and has already demonstrated the ability to provide for her?

I suppose it’s sadly realistic to how most parents think in this culture, but it was so very disappointing.

What does it mean to be “Positive”?

“Turn The Radio Up,” the first single from Barry Manilow’s 2001 Here at the Mayflower, was his first top 40 hit on the Billboard A/C charts since 1989’s “Keep Each Other Warm.”
Often compared to “Daybreak,” it’s a catchy tune of the “inspirational” sort, but in the context of recent thoughts, Something occurred to me listening to it yesterday:

turn the radio up
hear the melody
turn reality down
there’s too much talk about blues
to much of the time
turn the radio up
hear the harmony
turn the negative down
turn the radio up
everything will be fine

Primarily an emotion-based message, it works like any platitude in certain contexts. If “listening to the radio” is taken as a metaphor for rather than distraction from prayer, it works.
However,

worryin’ don’t do no good
so throw your cares away
come on people life’s too
short a stay
hey hey
everybody now

Again, a worthy though on its own, but there’s a subtle problem: feeling well is what counts, not being good.

Now the one that struck me, in terms of how words are ambiguated:

don’t give in
no matter what they say
out with the negative
you find the positive way

“Positive” has come to mean, “feels good,” while “negative” is “feels bad,” versus meaning “adds something” or “does something” on the one hand or “takes away something” or “does nothing” on the other. Technically, in one sense of the “negative way,” the essence of Carmelite spirituality, the approach to problems Barry is suggesting–shutting out the world and praying–is the “negative way,” the way of negation.
In a different perspective, though, the sense of “positivity” here, the annoying way of the optimist, the positivity of the person who smiles with not true joy or humor, is a bad negativity: listening to other people fiddle while Rome burns, so to speak.
To be detached for God is as “positive” as it gets. To be detached and not care-whether one’s expression is a frown or a smile-is truly negative.
That is why, when one suggests, “As Catholics, we need to be more positive,” meaning, “We have to do stuff, not just complain,” some people get angrier and think you mean “Shut up and do nothing and post cute cat pictures.”
It’s also why, in “support groups,” if you talk about the actual problems you’re there to get “support” for, people say, “you’re being too negative.”

Arrow of SHIELD’s Interest: on Season Finales and Tone (Spoiler alert)

The few times I was able to teach freshman literature, I taught at schools which used the Goia and Kennedy text. One of my favorite lessons I came up with was about Gothic literature, comparing how Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Alice Walker and Flannery O’Connor used the same genre with a very different tone and effect. It was a great lesson in how subtle differences in the end of a short story can leave the reader with a different experience. One student asked, “Why do we read all these writers who committed suicide and stuff?” I said, “Beats me, but look at the ones who did, and compare to the ones who didn’t.”
Something similar could be said regarding the seasons, and season finales, of CBS’s Person of Interest, CW’s Arrow and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I have blogged before about how Arrow is my favorite current show and seems in many ways to draw from POI. Between the three of them this season, there are so many parallels in stories and characters I get confused sometimes.
POI:

  • Starts off with a rich guy who’s legally dead hiring a former special forces and CIA operative to help him track down people who are identified by a computer.
  • The rich guy seeks to atone for his sense of guilt over making the computer to begin with.
  • They gradually uncover a number of conspiracies.
  • They build up a team including a talented female hacker and talented female assassin.
  • The police look for a vigilante known as “the Man in the Suit.”
  • The police detective who started the series chasing after them eventually started helping them and started this season being demoted for it.   She eventually got promoted again just before being shot and killed.
  • Each episode features thematically parallel stories from the characters’ “past” that not only help to develop the characters but often relate to what’s going on in the “present.”
  • They have ties to a fictional government spy agency

Arrow:

  • Starts of with a rich guy who has returned after five years of being legally dead hiring a former special forces operative to help him track down people whose names are listed in a notebook given to him by his father.
  • The rich guy seeks to atone for his father’s mistake in getting involved in the conspiracy indicated by the names in the notebook.
  • They gradually uncover a number of conspiracies.
  • They build up a team that includes a talented female hacker and talented female assassin.
  • The police look for a vigilante known as the “Man in the Hood” and later “the Arrow.”
  • The police detective who started the series chasing after them eventually started helping them and started this season getting demoted for it.  He eventually got promoted back to detective just before being beaten nearly to death (cliffhanger).
  • Each episode features thematically parallel stories from the characters’ “past” that not only help to develop the characters but often relate to what’s going on in the “present.”
  • They have ties to a fictional spy agency.

Now we throw in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD:

A spy who has been presumed dead comes back to run a covert team that includes a special forces guy, a talented female hacker, and a  talented female assassin.  They work for a fictional spy agency.  They start off by doing weekly missions for their spy agency but quickly uncover a number of conspiracies (which turn out to be related).   Like Arrow, it’s based upon a comic book universe but started by focusing on more “human” stories, using lesser known characters.

All three shows ended their seasons this week with similar cliffhangers:
1) Various conspiracy threads were wrapped up.  In all three cases, we learned that many adversaries who were thought to be separate were, wittingly or unwittingly, working together.   POI and Arrow ended with the main rich guys losing their businesses and fortunes, and SHIELD ended the season with the title organization in shambles, so all three ended with their main characters losing their support networks and possibly being fugitives.  POI and SHIELD ended with evil organizations getting government contracts.  Arrow ended the season with the government spy agency (ARGUS, DC’s equivalent of SHIELD) being possibly either the new employers of the main team or possibly the main adversary of Season 3.

POI is produced by JJ Abrams and Jonathan Nolan (co-writer of the “Dark Knight” Trilogy with his brother Christopher) while SHIELD is produced by Joss Whedon.  Both Nolan and Whedon have obvious ties to Arrow‘s parent company Warner, and now Amy Acker has appeared as a regular on POI and a guest star on SHIELD.  In addition to being two of the most popular sci-fi TV and movie writer/producer/directors of the past 10-15 years, Whedon and Abrams are known for using the same actors in multiple projects and for using “Easter Eggs” in their various productions.

Interestingly, I’m not the only one who’s suggested that “the Machine” on POI, or its new competitor Samaritan, sounds a lot like “Skynet” from the “Terminator” franchise.  Summer Glau, who played a “Terminator” on Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles and has starred or guest-starred in a number of Joss Whedon’s shows (appearing with Amy Acker on both Angel and Dollhouse), has been on Arrow this season as Isabel Rochev, who may or may not have died in the season finale but was working with Slade “Deathstroke” Wilson, a character whose codename in the comics was “the Terminator” until a certain movie came out.  However, it’s apparently Whedon who’s slated to produce the next Terminator movie, not Abrams.

Given all the thematic and behind-the scenes connections, it’s no wonder I feel like they’re basically all the same shows!

Nevertheless, there’s something about Arrow that makes it seem like the better, all-around show, and, as I started this review, while the finales had many superficial scenarios, there were very subtle differences in tone that left me with very different feelings.  Each finale had a “cliffhanger” that would have worked as a series finale.  Each tried to be a “game changer,” essentially setting up, as described, a completely different situation for its main characters next fall.

It seems like every week this season, the reactions of fans online to POI have been very negative, though the ratings have stayed solid.  This week, I saw very few positive comments online.  POI ended with narration telling us that “the one thing left when Pandora’s box has been opened is hope,” but it sure didn’t feel that way: or maybe the hope is in the box?  I don’t know, but I felt rather crushed and depressed by the tone of the episode.  Nothing can be the same, and it’s definitely stepping more into “grounded science fiction” and  out of “potentially happening in the world we live in.”  It’s not really clear if they’ll possibly be able to defeat Decima and Samaritan, or even if they’ll try.

Arrow was somewhere in between.  Things were bad, but looking up.  To this viewer, at least, it didn’t seem as depressing as POI yet still not so much hopeful as challenging or exciting: Oliver and company have a new quest, to win back his company.  The episode actually ends “in the past,” explaining a hinted connection between Oliver and ARGUS director Amanda “the Wall” Waller.   There really doesn’t seem to be a clear enemy to defeat at this point, though the seeds of next season’s adversaries may already be planted (not sure if FOX’s upcoming Gotham will put an end to the potential for any future Bat-villains, but I am still hoping for an appearance by Ra’s Al-Ghul.

SHIELD had the most classic cliffhangers, with a clear sense of completion to this season’s stories combined with hints of mystery for next year.  Where, like the other shows, it ended its year with a new beginning for the characters (“The Beginning of the End”), and although it was the least likely of the three to be renewed, ratings-wise, it was very clear where the show will be going, and that the characters ended on a relative high note compared to the others.  As it happened, while it aired first (Tuesday at 8), I watched it last of the three, and the viewing order may have colored my reaction, but it seemed to set a more optimistic tone.

The other thing it got right, as a “comic book show,” was what gave “comic books” their name: particularly in conjunction with the very big name (both as a character and an actor) guest star in the finale (and that’s a spoiler I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen it), there was a lot of actual humor in the episode.  As the arch-villain is raving, Special Guest Star says to agent Coulson: “You didn’t tell me he was this crazy?” “He’s kicked it up a notch.”

“Come with me, if you want to be not dead”: The Lego Movie

About a month before its DVD release, _The Lego Movie_ has finally shown up at the cheap theaters, and we saw it today as a family, my first movie-in-the-cinema since my surgeries and hospitalization last year. It was well worth it, and even better than I’d expected from the very good reviews I’ve seen. It’s a multi-layered allegory and parody. I’d have to watch it again to remember all the fantastic quotations.
There are Batman references from the Adam West series (Batman makes sound effect noises while throwing a batarang) to the 1989 “I’m Batman” to “He’s the hero you deserve,” paraphrased from _The Dark Knight_. There’s even a running joke about the poor reception of the _Green Lantern_ movie. While it superficially plays on the seemingly disparate and conflicting franchises to which Lego has licenses (the fact that there are both “Lego DC” and “Lego Marvel” blows my mind).
However, all the film rights to franchises depicted in _The Lego Movie_–DC being the most prominent–are or have been held by Warner at some point. While _Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles_ is currently owned by Nickelodeon, the first four movies were distributed by New Line and/or Warner (and IIRC, Michelangelo doesn’t get a speaking part). _Star Wars_, while usually associated with Fox and now owned by Disney, had some affiliation with Warner via the _Clone Wars_ series and the first _Lego Star Wars_ animated projects on Cartoon Network (and the brief cameo of _Star Wars_ characters doesn’t end well).
On the serious side, it starts with a dystopian world where mindless anonymous workers awaken in the morning, do exercises, read an instruction book on how to be happy, drink coffee, turn on their televisions, and hear messages from President Business, president of the world and the Octan Corporation, which is a trusted company because it “makes all the TV shows, music, history books and voting machines” (“Octan” is a fictional brand on Lego toys dating back to 1992, when it was first used for a gasoline station set). Everyone eats the same foods, listens to the same song (“Everything is Awesome”), watches the same sitcom (_Where are my pants?_, which has the same story and joke) every night, and drinks the same expensive coffee. It’s like a mixture of _Brave New World_, _1984_ and _Fahrenheit 451_–or maybe it’s really just the world we live in. So we have the basic “brainwashed minion breaks out of his dystopian reality to find a bigger world” trope, even to an ending twist that is more like Plato’s myth of the Cave or perhaps _The Matrix_ than the others. Yet, on the other hand, it plays on the dystopian cliches by having a message of the need for a balance between individuality and creativity on the one hand with teamwork and following the rules, on the other.
Meanwhile, the myth of the cave twist makes the story a story-within-a-story, a kind of masque, and parallels (much like the _Republic_) its social theme with a family theme.

Not only is it another great-for-all-ages film, I think it will stand up to more repeated viewings and in-depth analysis than many children’s films: it manages to be both funny and meaningful, and there were far too many jokes, themes and symbols to catch in one sitting.

T. S. Eliot’s _Four Quartets_ “East Coker” IV

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That quesions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

John Ross Ewing III: not his father

“Junior, it’s time you learned the art of subtlety.  .. . . Because the lack of it turns competitors into enemies and enemies into fanatics.”
–John Ross “Jock” Ewing I

That advice from Jock Ewing to Larry Hagman’s J.R. in the pilot episode of Dallas, “Digger’s Daughter,” which aired April 2,  1978, could very easily establish the theme of the series.  While the original intention was Romeo and Juliet in the oil and cattle industries, Hagman’s portrayal of J.R. was so compelling that he became the break-out character and gradually the “main character,” the only series regular to be in all fourteen seasons (Ken Kercheval’s Cliff Barnes not being an official “regular” till the third or fourth).

In that sense, the recently retired Jock’s advice to his son served as a fitting theme.  In fourteen years, “Junior” never did learn “subtlety” in the way his father meant.  He kept making the same mistakes of hubris over and over, till the point that, in series finale “Conundrum,” he had lost just about everything due to making too many enemies.

Every villain is the hero of his own story, but that works many ways.  Hagman was successful by playing JR comically and by portraying him as thinking himself the hero, doing everything he did for his family’s own good.

Meanwhile, J.R. and Bobby’s sons, John Ross and Christopher, were often portrayed worrying their grandmother.  Miss Ellie would often express worry that they were too much like their Daddies, and that the family was doomed to another generation of feuding.  However, while in their play John Ross would sometimes cheat Christopher, in general John Ross was the “good boy,” and Christopher was the one creating mischief.  JR often worried that his son lacked the competitive edge to take up the legacy of his name.   Indeed, when his illegitimate firstborn James Richard Beaumont shows up in later years, JR lifts his usual contempt for “half breeds” to welcome a son who is a bit more interested in following in his footsteps.

Larry Hagman, Omri Katz and Linda Gray on the set of _JR Returns_

James (and the grandson he fathered,  who would be in his 20’s now) have not even been mentioned, but that tension is still at work in the character of John Ross as portrayed by Josh Henderson on the new series.  He isn’t in appearance or demeanor as “gentle” as Omri Katz’s portrayal of the character-there’s something very hard about him.  In recent weeks, he finally seems to be hitting his stride, but it’s been hard to sympathize with him as a character.

Josh Henderson and Larry Hagman in the new series

When the new show started 2 years ago, ignoring the two movies from the late 90s, it picks up almost like the beginning of Season 15.  JR is in a mental hospital recovering from an unspecified breakdown.  A fictional Facebook “timeline” suggests stories to fill the gap, but it could easily be picking up as if JR has been in the looney bin since he shot the mirror in 1991.

The Ewings are, largely, has-beens.  John Ross and Christopher each start the series trying to rebuild their family’s legacy.  While Christopher and Bobby have a standing relationship, John Ross and J.R. are estranged.  He wants to earn his father’s respect.  In the second season, J.R.’s death saddles John Ross with the legacy he was given in his name.

This season, the character seems to have come into his stride.  While he is still far more serious and dour than his father, we see him more as the “hero of his own story.”  We also see him not so much as the “villain who thinks he’s the good guy,” but as the reluctant villain.  More like Roger Thorpe than J.R. Ewing, he’s constantly struggling with the desire to *not* be what everyone expects him to be. I can truly see in him the need for Grace, the thought that he doesn’t really want to be this way and would welcome an “out”, that maybe with a slight shift in priorities, and truly establishing a relationship with Christ, he could be a better person.

The episode featured the introduction of yet another family, and another international connection: a vaguely defined Arab Sheikh who had a previous agreement with JR.  John Ross nearly loses the deal by failing to demonstrate “subtlety,” and then wins an alliance by showing it.

Meanwhile, we see an alliance of various competitors-turned-enemies and enemies-turned-fanatics due to the arrogance of both Jock Ewing’s namesakes, including the return of the McKay’s (with George Kennedy still living, perhaps at least a cameo by Carter McKay himself will come down the line).

It’s nice that they’re giving the character a slightly different angle rather than making him a straight-up copy of his father.