Rating the Movies Since 1922, Part 1

There are many bastions of culture and critique where one can go to experience the arts and the measured critical examination of their fruits. One of these rich cultural havens is an institution that’s been viewing and reviewing virtually all of American cinema since 1922. That’s right, it’s the The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). As a champion of objective and even-handed analysis of our nation’s filmmakers, the MPAA has allowed our collective cultural experiences to be measured, assured, and age-appropriate.

In the recent past (around 1997 or so), the MPAA began publishing expanded editions of their concise and authoritative reviews, allowing us to peer through the window of that familiar MPAA rating frame into a mansion of depth and literary finesse. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Starting with my recent post on Constantine, I will be including an MPAA review with every film review-type post I make. With a discerning eye, the MPAA wrote “violence and demonic images.” This assessment of Constantine acknowledges its examination of fundamental themes: the depth and tragedy that human kind encounters in its quest for true redemption and understanding in the face of religion, and the recognition of their own role in determining their fate. Thrilling stuff.

Their examiniation of Hellboy, another comic adaptation dealing with occult and religious themes is more dismissive: “sci-fi action violence and frightening images.” One can sense the hesitation to acknowledge the deeper religious implications of the work, and their focus on its comic origins. While it’s true that Hellboy relies on action and scares, I believe the excellent makeup work on Ron Perelman as Hellboy deserves more recognition from the Association.

While on the theme of comics and Hell, I would be remiss not to mention their analysis of the tepid Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck: “action/violence and some sensuality.” Apparently even the cheap sexuality of Hollywood couldn’t save this film, as noted by the “some” preceding “sensuality.” You can almost hear the scoff, which is further emphasized by their even more terse review of the promotional rehash, Daredevil 1.5: “violence and language.” Ouch. But let it not be said that the Association cannot recognize cohesive and entertaining art direction, as demonstrated by their sensitive and thorough writings on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: “sequences of stylized sci-fi violence and brief mild language.” In one fell swoop, they acknowledge the immersive world created almost entirely through digital means, and give a nod to the adult appeal found beneath what might appear to be children’s fare. Bravo, I say. Bravo.

And while we’re on the topic of science fiction, how can we pass up this opportunity to mull over the MPAA’s examination of one of the most well-known and successful sci-fi franchises ever, George Lucas’s Star Wars. Here they are, in rapid chronological succession: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope: “sci-fi violence and brief mild language,” Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back: “sci-fi action violence,” Star Wars Episode VI: Return of The Jedi: “sci-fi action violence,” Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace: “sci-fi action/violence,” Star Wars: Episode 2 — Attack of the Clones: “sustained sequences of sci-fi action/violence.” Clearly, the Association found the original film to be a promise of something more, but were underwhelmed by Lucas’s completion of the original trilogy. Their repetative, almost dismissive words ring with a dull, bored thud. I must say, that I part ways with the Association on this one. Perhaps my nostalgia overwhelms my judgment. Regardless, the first of the prequels rates a slash, indicating that Phantom Menace was a disappointment (as it was for most). However, when one pushes the bar down, it’s hard not to clear it easily the next time, and the impressive action and battle sequences of the second prequel clearly made an impression (and the awkward romance scenes were left unmentioned). I eagerly await their thoughts on the third of the prequels, which must maintain the rising tenor of the Star Wars series as a whole, or doom Lucas to further uphill battles. But what does the Association say about another seminal sci-fi series, one that takes a darker view on the universe? Check back in later this week for part 2 of ’Rating the Movies Since 1922′ and find out.

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