Springtime for faith-based films?

If you hear actor Stephen Baldwin tell it, this is a blossoming time for movies with themes of faith.

Easy for him to say, of course. Baldwin, one of the four acting Baldwin brothers, was an invitee to the March 26 red-carpet preview in New York of “Noah,” one of those films.

"Noah" director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky. (Photo by Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures)

“Noah” director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky. (Photo by Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures)

“That’s the biggest reason why I’m here. I am very curious to see Darren and Russell’s interpretation,” Baldwin said, referencing Russell Crowe, who plays Noah, and Darren Aronofsky, who directed the film as well as serving as co-writer and co-producer.

Baldwin had gotten some “intel” from friends who had already seen “Noah,” and “I am willing to bet that this is going to be an amazing piece of entertainment,” he said. “So long as the film does not depict anything that goes completely against the Bible, I think it’s a great opportunity” to show that movies with faith themes can be successful, he added.

Baldwin, a Long Island native who was baptized a Catholic but who became a born-again Christian shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks, acknowledged that there’s “room for interpretation” by filmmakers. Depending on viewers’ familiarity with the Bible or other pictures, they might see action in “Noah” that reminds them of Abraham and Isaac, or Jesus and Judas — or even Disney’s treatment of “Swiss Family Robinson.”

“That’s a powerful issue right now: Christians and their interpretation of society and culture and this and that,” Baldwin said. “I think Christians ought to support it,” he added of the movie. Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant, Russell Crowe is great, it’s the story of Noah from the Bible, and whenever you get into these types of conversations, I think it’s interesting.” For instance, he noted, the only name in “Noah” used for God is “The Creator.” “Hey, maybe it’s the Lord’s will, brother, that this can be used for some special reason.”

And not just “Noah.” Baldwin saw the Jesus biopic “Son of God,” which was released a month earlier. “I think ‘Son of God’ was amazing. Really, really special,” he said. Reality-show kingpin Mark Burnett, who co-produced “Son of God” with his actress wife, Roma Downey, “is a buddy of mine. I’ve done ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ with him twice.”

Nor is Baldwin’s praise restricted to wide-release films. “‘God’s Not Dead,’ I think we gotta see that one,” he added. “That just came out. It did very well in limited screens. So right now, Christian content and Christian movies are doing very well.”

Baldwin said about 80 percent of his own acting work is in faith-themed films. Due out soon is “I’m in Love With a Church Girl,” starring and produced by rapper Ja Rule, aka Jeff Atkins. He’s wrapped filming on Long Island on another film, “Tapestry,” which co-stars Tina Louise (“Gilligan’s Island”) and Burt Young (the “Rocky” films). In April, he’ll be Instanbul, Turkey, acting in what he called “a psychological thriller … with a Christian theme.”

Will ‘Noah’ float your boat?

I can’t remember the last time I was behind a velvet rope to cover a star-studded event like the March 26 preview screening of “Noah” in midtown Manhattan with virtually all of the stars and other important personages in the Hollywood firmament.

(Photo courtesy of Grace Hill Media)

(Photo courtesy of Grace Hill Media)

I certainly can’t remember standing behind a rope line like that described above for two-and-a-half hours in bone-chilling cold. Sure, I wore a topcoat over my suit and had my cotton driving gloves on, and there was a tent to shield the stars and their red carpet, but there weren’t any heaters on my side of the tent, that’s for sure.

With aluminum police-style barricades mere inches from the rope stanchions, and with the spot for each journalist’s news outlet taped onto the carpeting (so you literally knew exactly where you stood in the reportorial food chain), we reporters were more like puppies at the pound hoping for attention from someone. Anyone. And we might’ve gotten some, too, if our spots weren’t so close to the theater entrance. I pity the journalist who did several takes of his opening lines, including about the stars he was expecting to interview. I don’t remember seeing a single one of them approach him.

There was the occasional uptick in the decibel level when a stretch limo slowed in front of the theater, or an actor entered the tent from the side opposite from where I was standing. But most my time was spent rehearsing in my mind the questions I hoped I would ask but never got the chance to.

When not rehearsing, I chatted with other frozen-out reporters, and remembered Bill Cosby’s terrific take on the Noah story in his very first comedy album, “Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow … Right!” In the bit, now 50 years old, Cosby not only played God (speaking in a lower register and moving the microphone closer to your mouth will do the trick), but also the put-upon Noah.

Cosby’s Noah said “… Right!” every time he thought God (or somebody) was trying to put one over on him. After one instruction from God, Cosby responds, “… Right! … Am I on ‘Candid Camera’?” In another, after God delivers precise instructions for building the ark, Cosby answers, ” … Right! … What’s a cubit?”

The noise increased as the big stars get closer but never within reach. Some actors have developed relationships with such journalistic outlets as Teen Vogue and would rather answer questions about the do’s and don’ts of throwing parties, or who made their gown for the evening. On the other hand, trying to conduct a civilized conversation in these conditions can be a stretch even if both parties were so inclined.

Inside the theater, “Noah” director, co-writer and co-producer Darren Aronofsky tells the full house the story of his seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Vera Fried, and her assignment to her entire class at Mark Twain Middle School on Coney Island to write something about peace. Aronofsky wrote a poem, “The Dove,” that Mrs. Fried liked so much that she entered it into a contest. And it won! Aronofsky’s prize, such as it was, was to recite the poem over the PA system at the school.

Noah was a central character in “The Dove,” he said, and “Noah” the film in a way represented his coming full circle with that episode in his life. The circle got more complete when he summoned Mrs. Fried from her seat and made her recite his poem before the movie began.

Now it’s your turn to grab some popcorn and determine for yourself how well Aronofsky did in transforming two pages from the Book of Genesis into a two-hour and 16-minute film.

The best Christmas movies

A scene from the movie "Joyeux Noel." (CNS photo/Sony Picture Classics)

A scene from the movie “Joyeux Noel.” (CNS photo/Sony Picture Classics)

John Mulderig, the assistant director for media reviews at CNS, was asked to come up with a top-10 list of Christmas movies. Try as he might, John couldn’t whittle it down to just 10. Instead, he delivered a crop of 19 Christmas-themed films that viewers of all ages can enjoy.

Take a look at the list; films are listed alphabetically. How many have you seen?

”The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945)
“The Bishop’s Wife” (1947)
“A Christmas Carol” (1951)
“A Christmas Carol” (2009)
“A Christmas Story” (1983)
“Christmas With the Kranks” (2004)
“Come to the Stable” (1949)
“The Fourth Wise Man” (1985)
“Fred Claus” (2007)
“It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946)
“Joyeux Noel” (2006)
“Miracle on 34th Street” (1947)
“The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992)
“The Nativity Story” (2006)
“The Polar Express” (2004)
“Prancer” (1989)
“The Shop Around the Corner” (1940)
“Three Godfathers” (1948)
“White Christmas” (1954)

Scene from the animated movie "The Polar Express." (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

Scene from the animated movie “The Polar Express.” (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

When all is said and done, you may want to revisit some old favorites, or you may want to look at some movies you haven’t seen (or can’t remember having seen). When it comes to viewing, there’s the current fashion of “binge viewing,” such as watching every episode of a TV series’ season one after the other until they’re all seen. That would be pretty easy to do if you have video on demand or an online streaming service available to you. Or, you might be the kind of person who believes that every day should be like Christmas. So if you’re watching “The Polar Express” and the calendar says Jan. 19, I’m not going to tattle on you.

Calligraphy teaching priest portrayed in new movie

Father Robert Palladino, an 80-year old priest of the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., might want to get out to the movies — at least to see how he is portrayed on the big screen.

Father Palladino  (CNS photos)

Father Palladino (CNS photo)

The priest  is credited with teaching Apple Computers co-founder Steve Jobs calligraphy that influenced the typeface of Mac computers.

His role as calligraphy professor at Portland’s Reed College with his famous student gets a scene in the biographical movie ” Jobs.”  In the movie, the priest is portrayed by 48-year-old actor and screenwriter William Mapother, best known for playing Ethan Rom on the TV series “Lost.”

Mapother, a native of Louisville, Ky.,  attended St. Xavier High School there and then the University of Notre Dame.

He told the Catholic Sentinel that he intended to portray Father Palladino as “someone deeply committed to calligraphy, and by extension, to life. Someone who cared about beauty, expression, and communication. Someone serious.”

He said he received some background about the priest before the scene was filmed, and would like to have met him but didn’t get time.

About 10 minutes into the movie,  Jobs is wandering around his college campus when he sees a girl under a tree sketching. She says she is taking a calligraphy class taught by a monk. The movie then jumps to Jobs in the classroom, working on calligraphy.

In a later scene, Jobs explodes at an engineer who did not include a button for multiple fonts on a computer toolbar. He fires the man, complaining that obviously he lacked passion for the project.

During a 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Jobs said that Reed College in the 1970s offered what he thought was the best calligraphy instruction in the country. “Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed,” Jobs said.

According to the Catholic Sentinel, Father Palladino taught Jobs serif and sans serif type faces and about varying spaces between combinations of letters, and everything that makes typography excellent.

A CNS story on the priest two years ago points out that Father Palladino was a Trappist monk for 18 years. In 1968 he left the order and was dispensed from monastic vows and celibacy by Pope Paul VI. He married and had a son with his wife Catherine.

His wife died in 1987 and five years later he asked Portland’s archbishop,  then-Archbishop William J. Levada, if he could become a  priest. In 1995, with papal approval, the former monk and husband became a parish priest.

He said his role in the movie came as a surprise because he was not consulted about it. He is just now getting around to reading the 2011 book on which the movie is based.

But he was  glad the producers chose “a handsome, athletic, 6-foot-1 actor to portray him. “
“Of course, Hollywood does have a way of getting unhinged from reality, ” he quipped.

Marquette’s ‘Tolkieniana’ collection includes manuscripts, drawings

Marquette archivist William Fliss looks over material related to Tolkien collection. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

Marquette archivist William Fliss looks over materials related to Tolkien collection held by university. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

The buzz about “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” preceded the film’s release by months and since the movie opened Dec. 14, it has grossed more than $600 million in box office receipts around the world — and still counting. But as Tom Jozwik writes in a story for the Catholic Herald in Milwaukee, the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien on which the film is based and his other works and papers have been “hot topics around Marquette University for some time.”

The Jesuit-run university has a Tolkien collection — “Tolkienana” — that contains 10,000 pages of the author’s book manuscripts, typescripts and drawings.

As the Catholic News Service review of “The Hobbit” notes, that Tolkien novel was first published in 1937 and “has proved so popular in the decades since that it has never gone out of print.” Almost two decades later, Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was published. His work has been described as Catholic in both the general sense of “universal” and in the Catholic sense of a deeply sacramental understanding of reality. Tolkien also was a good friend of C.S. Lewis, whose work is finding renewed popularity and whose exploration of Christian faith is inspiring a new generation as we reported earlier this month.

Behold: the children’s movie made for children

SCENE FROM MOVIE 'RISE OF THE GUARDIANS'

Scene from the animated film ‘Rise of the Guardians.’ (CNS/DreamWorks Animation)

As someone who has to take his daughter to the movies every once in a while, I found it refreshing to see the movie “Rise of the Guardians.” It is a family-friendly movie in every sense of the word.

When I interviewed its director, Peter Ramsey, Nov. 29, I knew I had to ask him to comment on having such characters as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, who are stand-ins for the real reasons behind those seasons, in the film — besides being two of the central characters in the William Joyce books on which the movie is based.

“We knew we were dealing with these characters, and we knew we embraced these characters” from our own childhood, Ramsey replied. “These are real, and they have a real presence for these people. You can’t deny that there’s something real emotional and real special about these characters.”

He added, “We wanted to make a movie that kids would be able to see and completely enjoy. We didn’t want to pander to one group or another. We didn’t want to load it down with stuff for adults: ‘Yeah, this is corny and syrupy sweet. We’re in on the joke.’ We wanted to tell a straightforward adventure story for kids that anyone could enjoy.”

To that end, Ramsey and crew succeeded. John Mulderig, CNS’ associate director for media reviews, gave “Rise of the Guardians” a classification of A-I — general patronage. He called the film “a tenderhearted and touching family movie — one, moreover, that’s entirely free of objectionable content.” Privately (well, not so privately, if I’m spilling the beans here), he told me it was “as ‘A-I’ a movie as I’ve seen this year.”

I, for one, found it quite free of those manipulative moments that tug at the heartstrings of grown-ups, and was glad of it. Not so, apparently for movie watchers at previews Ramsey’s attended. “I can’t tell you how many grown men come up to me afterward: ‘I don’t know why I felt this way but I cried three times during the movie,’” he told Catholic News Service, adding there have been “at least three with every screening.”

Ramsey said some viewers have told him, “It really did make me feel like a kid again.” And it can, he notes, “if you are really open to that side of yourself.” Well, when you’ve got the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost and the Sandman on the same side as Santa and the Easter Bunny doing battle against the Bogeyman, how can you lose?

Top movies, family films for 2011. Are your Oscar favorites here?

Editor’s Note: As you prepare for this Sunday’s Academy Awards telecast, take a look at John Mulderig’s choices, reprinted below, for 2011′s top movies. And at the end you’ll find a bonus listing of the year’s top 10 family films.

By John Mulderig
Catholic News Service

Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — In late 1965, the three-decade-old National Legion of Decency announced that it was changing its name to the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures.

That switch represented more than just altered terminology. It signaled an intent on the part of the U.S. church’s officially sanctioned film agency to take a more open and positive — though by no means uncritical — approach in its assessment of cinema.

In keeping with this new emphasis, that same year, the film office issued its first list of the 10 best movies released over the previous 12 months.

As with many an innovation, the list gradually became a tradition, one that the media review office of Catholic News Service — which now performs the work originally done by the Legion and its successors — intends faithfully to honor. So here — in alphabetical order – are, first, our choices of the Top 10 films of 2011 suitable for a variety of audiences, followed the 10 best films for family viewing.

Here are the 10 best films overall:

A modern-made silent film, “The Artist” recounts the contrasting fortunes of a dashing star (Jean Dujardin) for whom the arrival of the “talkies” presages decline, and one of his adoring fans (Berenice Bejo) who’s destined for stardom. French director Michel Hazanavicius’ film is, by turns, zany and hilarious, sad and affecting, uplifting and inspiring (A-III, PG-13).

Robin Wright as Mary Surratt in "The Conspirator." (CNS/Roadside Attractions)

“The Conspirator” is an engrossing historical drama about the lawyer (James McAvoy) who defended Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the pro-Confederate widow charged with conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Director Robert Redford’s portrait of a protagonist admirably committed to the rule of law is made all the more effective by the fair assessment of those with other legitimate priorities (A-III, PG-13).

Stylish — though frequently violent — “The Debt” follows a game of cat-and-mouse across two time periods as three Mossad agents (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds) track down and capture a Josef Mengele-like Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen). While suitable only for mature viewers, as directed with flair by John Madden, this gritty drama will certainly keep them guessing right up to the end (L, R).

In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” director David Yates’ gratifying wrap-up to a decade of blockbuster adaptations, the titular wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) continues to battle his evil nemesis (Ralph Fiennes) aided, once again, by his two closest friends (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson). Many of the symbols and themes in this final narrative echo Scripture and comport with Judeo-Christian beliefs (A-II, PG-13).

Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in "The Help." (CNS/DreamWorks)

Set in the early 1960s, the warm, deftly acted drama “The Help” compellingly portrays the efforts of a rebellious white Southerner and would-be journalist (Emma Stone) to write a book documenting the lives of group of black housemaids (most prominently Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer). Writer-director Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel uses vivid characterizations to bring the Civil Rights-era struggle for human dignity alive (A-III, PG-13).

The 3-D fable “Hugo” follows the adventures of a 12-year-old orphan (Asa Butterfield) who lives in one of Paris’ great train stations during the 1930s. Director Martin Scorsese’s paean to the City of Lights, the human imagination and the pioneers of early cinema casts a charming spell (A-II, PG).

“The Ides of March” is a savvy but raw political drama about an up-and-coming press spokesman (Ryan Gosling) who discovers that the campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for whom he works and the candidate (George Clooney) in whom he deeply believes are not all they seem. With a sharp script and a powerful cast, Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote, turns in a slick study in the corrupting effects of power (L, R).

Writer-director Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” asks the question: Would you be happier living in a long-ago, mythically remembered past? A frustrated Hollywood screenwriter and would-be novelist (Owen Wilson) gets to find out when he gains mysterious entree to the French capital of the 1920s (A-III, PG-13).

“Of Gods and Men” is a brilliant dramatization of real events, recounting the fate of a small community of French Trappist monks (led by Lambert Wilson and including Michael Lonsdale) living in Algeria during that nation’s civil war in the 1990s. Using the tools of the monastic life itself, director Xavier Beauvois finds a path to the heart of the Gospel through simplicity, a compassionate sense of brotherhood and an atmosphere of prayer enriched by sacred music and potent silence (A-III, PG-13).

Martin Sheen in "The Way." (CNS/Producers Distribution Agency/ARC)

In “The Way,” after his semi-estranged son (Emilio Estevez) dies while hiking the ancient pilgrimage route to the Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela, a California doctor (Martin Sheen) resolves to complete the journey as a means of honoring the lad’s memory. Estevez, who also wrote and directed, takes viewers on a reflective, and ultimately rewarding, exploration of elemental themes that challenges materialistic values (A-III, PG-13).

- – -

And here are the 10 best films for families:

In “The Adventures of Tintin,” director Steven Spielberg’s visually sumptuous animated adaptation of Belgian cartoonist Herge’s famed comic books, the curiously coiffed young reporter (voiced by Jamie Bell) finds himself drawn into a centuries-old mystery. Themes congruent with Judeo-Christian values are advanced through sympathetic main characters, a screenplay faithful to its classic source material and envelope-pushing 3-D technology (A-I, PG).

Actor Samuel L. Jackson narrates “African Cats,” an impressive nature documentary charting the varied fortunes of a pride of lions and a clan of cheetahs. Directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill provide the whole family with a top-quality cinematic safari (A-I, G).

Director Joe Johnston’s comic book adaptation “Captain America: The First Avenger” relates the origins story of the superhero (Chris Evans) with a complete absence of cynicism and a crackling undercurrent of dry wit (A-II, PG-13).

Lightning McQueen, voice by Owen Wilson, in "Cars 2." (CNS/Disney)

“Cars 2,” director John Lasseter’s winsome sequel, sees a veteran racecar (voice of Owen Wilson) competing against a cocky Italian speedster (voice of John Turturro) in the first-ever World Grand Prix. Amid the sight gags and belly laughs are good lessons about family, friendship, self-esteem and acceptance of others (A-I, G).

In “Gnomeo & Juliet,” it’s love at first ceramic clink for two garden gnomes — voiced by Emily Blunt and James McAvoy. Director Kelly Asbury’s clever animated comedy offers wholesome fun for the entire family (A-I, G).

Vivid animation and a ringing endorsement of the traditional family combine to make director and co-writer Simon Wells’ endearing adventure “Mars Needs Moms” a film kids can enjoy and parents will appreciate. Seth Green plays a 9-year-old boy who comes to recognize the deep love his mother (Joan Cusack) has for him after she’s kidnapped by Martians (A-I, PG).

Amy Adams and Jason Segel in "The Muppets." (CNS/Disney)

Kermit the Frog (voice of Steve Whitmire) and Jim Henson’s other singing, dancing, wisecracking puppets return to the big screen in “The Muppets,” an old-fashioned and genuinely funny comic outing directed by newcomer James Bobin. (A-I, PG)

“Rio” is a buoyant animated adventure with music about a Brazilian-born macaw (voice of Jesse Eisenberg) who returns to his homeland after being raised as a cosseted pet in Minnesota. Lessons about environmental stewardship and love-inspired loyalty are decked out in kaleidoscopic colors in director Carlos Saldanha’s 3-D flight of fancy (A-I, G).

AnnaSophia Robb in "Soul Surfer." (CNS/Tri-Star)

Director Sean McNamara’s fact-based drama “Soul Surfer” recounts the story of a devoutly Christian competitive surfer (AnnaSophia Robb) whose life is changed forever by a shark attack. It’s an uplifting tale bolstered by stunning cinematography and an unapologetic treatment of religious faith (A-II, PG).

In “Winnie the Pooh,” directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall’s delightfully innocent, predominantly animated adaptation of A.A. Milne’s classic children’s books, the immortal bear (voice of Jim Cummings) finds his characteristic quest for honey interrupted by his friend Eeyore’s (voice of Bud Luckey) latest crisis — and by other complications (A-I, G).

-

Mulderig is assistant director for media reviews at Catholic News Service.

-

Editor’s Note: Here are the CNS classifications for the movies mentioned in this article: A-I — general patronage; A-II — adults and adolescents; A-III — adults; L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. 

Taking a shine to Martin Sheen

The first time I met Martin Sheen was in the summer of 1999, a couple of months before “The West Wing” premiered. NBC was hosting a garden party for TV writers with much of its on- and off-screen talent present. I had worked arduously with an NBC publicist to get some interview time with Sheen during the party. And just as I was getting started, actor Robert Davi (he was on the drama “Profiler” at the time) interrupted, as he just had to confer with Sheen about some miraculous occurrence in Davi’s life.

By the time I got to my “exclusive” interview with Sheen, it became far less exclusive. Other writers started hovering around us, eventually planting their cassette recorders on the table in front of Sheen. (By comparison, nobody but me seemed interested in actor Mike O’Malley.) By and large, the other writers weren’t even asking questions. They just wanted to hear Sheen rhapsodize about what was on his mind.

Martin Sheen and son Emilio Estevez talk about "The Way" at Georgetown University in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

When I recounted this to Sheen Feb. 18 at Georgetown University, he retorted, “Oh, so I was a windbag!” Maybe, but his recorded comments were parlayed into a couple of articles, including one that won me a prize from the Catholic Press Association for best personality profile.

Following a post-interview hiatus, I returned to Georgetown to take in a screening of “The Way,” which stars Sheen and is directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. Sheen plays a doctor who impulsively makes the 500-mile pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in the place of his son, who dies in a storm on the first day of the journey.

I sat in the back row, which was reserved for media types, sitting dead center so that others would not have to scooch past me. After a litany of pre-screening welcomes, including a joint thank-you from Sheen and Estevez, the lights dimmed. As the film began, there was a figure trying to climb over the back of the empty seat next to me. It was Sheen! I offer him my hand so he could clamber over a little more gracefully. Joe Cosgrove, Sheen’s attorney and friend (and a sometimes “West Wing” bit player), was sitting on the other side of that empty seat. “This is Mark,” Sheen told Cosgrove in a hoarse whisper. “He’s a journalist.”

I tried to observe Sheen’s reactions to a movie he’s undoubtedly already seen plenty of times. But it’s hard to read what you’ve written in a dark movie theater. Personally, I found it amazing that he laughed, chuckled or winced at all, given the repeated in-person screenings of “The Way” he has attended, with countless more still to come while he promotes the film for an April 15 opening in England, Ireland and Malta, and a Sept. 30 opening in the United States.

After the movie was over, Sheen had to get back to the auditorium floor to join Estevez in taking questions from the audience. I stood up and leaned back against my chair to give Sheen room to make his way past the others in our row. Instead, he went out the way he came in — climbing over the seat back to get to some carpeted terra firma.

There be audiences?

The promotion team for the upcoming feature film “There Be Dragons” has its work cut out. This is the same group that laid the groundwork for “The Passion of the Christ,” which sparked controversy well before the film’s debut in theaters.

A screening of “The Passion of the Christ” following the U.S. bishops’ 2002 fall general meeting in Washington attracted a packed house of close to 100 at the Motion Picture Association of America’s screening room downtown.

St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of Oppus Dei. (CNS photo from Opus Dei)

But a screening Nov. 16 of “There Be Dragons” — which features many incidents in the early life of St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei — drew just nine people to a Baltimore multiplex across the street from the hotel where the bishops were conducting this year’s fall general meeting. Of the dozen bishops who RSVP’d in the affirmative, only one attended: Archbishop Anthony S. Apuron of Agana, Guam.

Most of the rest of the audience consisted of journalists covering the bishops’ meeting. While willing to give the film a chance, they issued pointed criticisms — from the makeup job given a character who ages throughout the movie to the film’s title. But the title is a play on the phrase “here there be dragons,” from the Latin “hic sunt dracones,” used in ancient maps to indicate a dangerous or unknown place, or a place to be explored. The movie’s makers say the theme running through the film explores “unknown territories” of hatred, guilt and forgiveness.

What was screened was not quite a rough cut, but writer-director and co-producer Roland Joffe (“The Mission”) intends to make more edits before the film. Promoters hope to have a distributor willing to roll out “There Be Dragons” on a thousand screens in the United States April 15, the Friday before Palm Sunday. The movie is already generating buzz in Spain, the birthplace of St. Josemaria and the setting of the film, much of which takes place during the Spanish Civil War.

In a 2009 teleconference with reporters, Joffe said the film is about human love, divine love, betrayal and mistakes and “about people trying to find meaning” in their lives.

Major differences between “The Passion” and “Dragons”? One is that Mel Gibson, who directed “The Passion,” was at the top of his game as a director and a promoter. Another is that lots of people of all faiths can understand the point behind a film about Jesus, while perhaps a much smaller audience would be compelled to see a film about a Spanish saint.

Backers of  “There Be Dragons” have less than five months to not only polish the film, but also to tailor the push to get a critical mass of moviegoers to see it.

Mormons promote our movie reviews

In the category of shameless self promotion, we were pleased to see that the Mormon-owned daily newspaper the Deseret News in Salt Lake City last week gave a plug to our movie reviews as a “unique voice in a noisy lobby” and published some sample capsule reviews. The article plugging us began:

The Roman Catholic Church has been reviewing movies in the United States since 1936.

Almost three-quarters of a century later, the Catholics’ perspective on film still stands apart — even in a media landscape well-populated with Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Ebert and a staggering variety of opinions.

We were then doubly pleased yesterday that the media blog of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had an entry titled Latter-day Saints Promote Catholic News Service Movie Reviews, noting that, though Catholics and Mormons differ significantly in their theologies, they hold much in common in the area of family values.

Our review of the new "Wall Street" movie said Michael Douglas' performance was "magnetic" but said the film's central romantic relationship "puts the sexual cart before the marital horse."

Our movie reviews have a long and rich history, beginning with the Legion of Decency, then the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, and more recently the USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting. Earlier this year, with the reorganization of the USCCB Communications Department, we inherited the office’s functions, meaning that office director John Mulderig is now part of CNS, though he remains in New York City. (It made sense for film and broadcasting to become a CNS function since for years we’ve been the primary distributor of the office’s materials to the Catholic press.)

As the Deseret News noted, the media landscape is crowded with film reviewers, especially since the birth of the Internet. Yet we feel we offer a unique combination that looks at movies based on both artistic considerations and as a guide to parents wondering whether a film is appropriate for toddlers or pre-teens or only for adolescents in a way that goes beyond the traditional ratings of G, PG, PG-13 etc.

We’re glad that the Deseret News agrees.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 630 other followers