Monday, May 31, 2004

Girl with a Pearl Earring

I just saw the DVD of GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING last night - catching up on some of the fine movies of 2003 (O brother! Where are the really good movies this year???). What an exquisite film. My sister and I both kept saying, "Each scene is a masterpiece - this is a true art film!"

Just as Jan Vermeer was a master of composition and light, so is this film, directed by Peter Weber and starring Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as the serving girl, Griet.

The film is based on a novel by Tracey Chevalier. The plot is thin, or should I say ordinary. This is not to demean the story - rather everyone who knows the painting and perhaps something about Vermeer probably knows that any story about the painting must be made up.. Therefore, the simplicity of the plot befits the splendid simplicity of the painting.

I am not an art historian, but an appreciator. Once you get into film or media studies in any way, you start examining the visual composition of the "frame" or scenes for meaning. Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son is a wonderful painting to deconstruct because it uses all the techniques of composition to communicate with the viewer. So do all great artists... It is an easy step to identify these techniques and use them as criteria for judging the artistic value of a film - or even photography and print ads.

There is a scene in the film that shows Vermeer using the "camera obscura" - an early form of the camera to compose his pictures, or at least to study them. I checked this fact with the encyclopedia, and this is noted in the article there. This explains then why his works are so "picture perfect" ...

Even if you know nothing of art, this film is such a work of beauty that it deserves our admiration.

If you would like to see the few masterpieces still in existence by Vermeer, check out this web site - it will enhance your appreciation of the film:

Friday, May 28, 2004

Two Brothers

TWO BROTHERS is a beautiful tale of twin tiger cubs born in the jungles of Cambodia around World War I. If you liked the 1988 film The Bear by director Jean-Jacques Annaud, you will enjoy this contemplation of nature and the animal kingdom and how harmony can be restored when it is disrupted by human greed.

FRom the same studio that brought us Babe...

My full review is located here:

A Day without a Mexican

A Day without a Mexican is nothing like I thought it would be. It is a mockumentary that deals with prejudice, ignorance, racism, what it means to be an alien (think UFO), friendship, pride and honesty. It's as good as a Michael Moore-type documentary only this one is so layered and nuanced yet in-your-face at the same time, that you have to laugh. I think it deserves an award.

On one day, all the Latinos in California disappear and everything begins to fall apart. Only one Latina is left, so a scientist wants to innoculate all the other Californians with the L-factor, so they won't disappear, too. No one can enter or leave California because a fog border has appeared that surrounds the state completely.

Think of California... and how TV (=Anglos) think that all Latinos or Hispanics are Mexican, when as the film tells us, there are 40 countries south of the border between the US and Mexico. Do you think that Hollywood is the biggest industry in California? Nope - it's agriculture. So the film teaches while it makes fun of how TV (=Anglos) have sterotyped people who have immigrated (legally or illegally) here from Spanish-speaking countries, or have been born here, first or second generation - and how California will cease to be as we know it if the Latinos were to leave.

You have to see this film. I cannot describe it and do it justice. It's very much in sync with The Day After Tomorrow as far as the U.S. and relations with Mexico are concerned. Oh, and the media get lampooned very well, too.


Media literacy education folks will appreciate the conclusion of the film: you don't see invisible people until they disappear.

When the main protagonist of the film finds out she was adopted from Armenia and raised by Mexican parents in California, she says, "You belong to the people who taught you the world." Amen.

The Day After Tomorrow

The Day After Tomorrow is NOT your typical patriotic disaster movie. I think it is very political, though, and each citizen of the earth and lawmakers would do well to sit up, take notice, and action.

Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is a climatologist doing research with two colleagues in Antarctica when the ledge they are on starts to split. Next Jack is in New Delhi speaking at a conference on global warming and the vice president (Kenneth Welsh) of the US ridicules Jack for being more concerned over the environment than the economy. They argue over the U.S. lack of signing of the Kyoto Accord. A British climatologist (Ian Holm) befriends Jack - just in time for Jack's predictions about a new ice age come true.

The colder it got in the movie, the colder it got in the theater, so I for one, felt like I was in New York as it froze over. New York's counterpart in disaster movies, Los Angeles, gets destroyed by cyclones... and by the way, Fox News covers it all - they really do disasters well, from wars to the biggest storms to hit the earth for last 10,000 millennia. You always feel like you are at a football game. The VP has more power than the president, so, did they try to make him look like VP Cheney?

I know some critics from the scientific community think this film is off base and that it is entertainment dabbling in science and politics. But I say, good for the filmmakers. This is an excellent way to sensitize people to how we are trashing the earth and possible consequences. Sure, maybe it won't be another ice age. But we will never even know the effect of plastic on the environment in our generation.

The big question here is: is the economy more important than the environment? Well, no environment, no economy. No economy, hopefully, we will still have the wherewithall to survive - as long as the destruction of the environment hasn't led to the collapse of the economy. Then, all we will have left is remorse and prayer.

We just passed Earth Day a few weeks ago. In case you didn't know, the Catholic version of Earth Day is January 1. For many years of his pontificate, John Paul II has made a statement on the environment on that day. The care for the earth and the integrity of creation form one ofthe principles of Catholic social teaching.

Although you rarely if ever see these kinds of films with females in the lead roles, e.g. mother-daughter, I did like that Jack, who is separated from his wife in the film (Sela Ward), makes and keeps his promise to his son.

Another interesting "idea" in the film is that the weather is the alien, the evil, that is attacking the US and the rest of the world. But I don't think anyone would call the catastrophe in the film an "act of God." It's not God's fault that humanity is not caring for the earth.

When the U.S. flag freezes, that's when I knew for sure that this is not a typical patriotic Memorial Day/4th of July disaster movie. At the end the president (former v.p. because the president doesn't make it out of the country) expresses humility!!! and thanks to Mexico and other Third World and developing nations for their hospitality to U.S. citizens. A cinematic first!



The Notebook

The Notebook (coming soon to a theater near you!) is based on the Nicholas Sparks novel of the same title. What's beautiful about the movie is that it takes on marital fidelity over the long haul... over the decades, in sickness and in health. Dramas about old people are rare, though we have had some: On Golden Pond, Driving Miss Daisy, Trip to Bountiful, Marvin's Room. But here is another one to remind the younger generation that marriage, love and fidelity can endure - and that as we care for our parents so the younger generation will one day care for us.

The movie opens with a lone rower gliding across the river at sunset and an old woman gazing out the window. The man is Duke and the woman is Allie. They live in a residential care facility. Allie has dementia with flashes of reality and Duke has heart trouble. He reads to Allie during the day, from his notebook.

The story he reads is about Noah,  a country boy in rural South Carolina who works at the lumber yard. Allie, a 17 year old rich girl from Charleston, comes down for the summer of 1940 and they fall in love. But her parents intervene and Allie has to go north to college. Then comes the war. Noah writes to her every day for a year, but when she does not respond, he gives up. Kind of.

The movie flows gently back and forth between then and now. Ryan Gosling as Noah reminded me a little of a young Jimmy Stewart type and Rachel McAdams as the young Allie was really good. James Garner as Duke, and Gena Rowlands as the older Allie are cast very well and their time together is very moving.

The film is directed by Nick Cassavetes of John Q. and She's So Lovely.

You need to be willing to take your time with this film because it is very... gradual. It has its humorous moments as well. The biggest problem is with the ending - it has two. It should have stopped at the first one.

There is some discreet sexuality in the film and this can provide talking points with young people regarding sex before marriage and affairs, especially within our faith tradition.

The film challenges us to remain faithful to our commitments and to love without limit.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Welcome to My Movies!

I am very pleased to welcome you to this online journal.

I would like to share with you my criteria for exploring contemporary film through these spontaneous reviews and commentary - usually written within 24 hours of viewing (hence the occasional typo's). I try to consider


n                                  The degree to which the filmmaker tells the story through the creative use of image and sound;

n                                  How well the main character(s) grows as a person and member of the human family;

n                                  The promotion of the Gospel values of human dignity, family and community, justice, peace, and fair representation of cultures, races, gender, age, religious faith and spirituality, and

n                                  The ability to entertain and uplift the human spirit.


Film criticism and interpretation is so very subjective, so I appreciate your comments. My hope is that this blog, by adding to the conversation about movies that are so prevalent in our culture, will create a “space” for ongoing dialogue between families, friends and communities about human and Gospel values. Talking about movies, that is, cinema story-telling is a way to engage critically and positively with our culture. It can be a meaningful way to build bridges between people, especially our young who are both the largest movie audience in the world and the future story-tellers through film (and television) of tomorrow

Friday, May 21, 2004

America's Heart and Soul

America's Heart and Soul is a beautiful new 90 minute film to be released for the July 4th weekend. If you are tired of overlong "patriotic" disaster films, then let yourself be inspired by this contemplative road (and air) trip around the USA.

Over the last 10 years, filmmaker Louis Swartzberg has collected and now created a montage of "voices" and faces that tell their stories of what freedom in America means - and these meanings include everything from freedom from alcoholism to the freedom of dance, family and very excentric (and entertaining) forms of art-making.

I have two observations that keep the film from being a 5 out of 5 for me: all the way through I longed to  hear the voices and stories of more women. There are only about three women's stories compared to maybe 15 men's stories; and the film lacks Asian representation on the same scale that men's stories and images are represented - and there was no Islamic representation at all.

I would give anything to see such a fine effort that give front stage to women, children and other minorities.

I must add that there is one story about "cliff dancers" that is visually stunning. I have never seen or heard of such an art (sport?) and it literally blew me away.

But it is Swarzberg's film and as such, it is a good, even impressive, watch.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004


Shrek2 begins when Fiona and Shrek go on their honeymoon and return to find Donkey keeping house for them (more or less.) Fiona's parents want them to come for a visit so they can give their blessing to the marriage. And the adventures begin.

Shrek2 is aimed a little older audience than the Shrek - perhaps hoping to interest the now more mature audience that enjoyed the first film. Lots of double entendre, a little scatalogoical humor - and Joan Rivers, Starbucks and Hollywood - watch out! The film is such a spoof on the cult of image... and continues to have some of the same themes that made the original so enjoyable.... family, body image, self-confidence, sacrifice for others and for love, truth, reconciliation. Sound track is pretty good - though I think it could have been better (in my vast experience and ever so humble opinion.)

The audience really laughed - and so did I.

Eddie Murphy lives!!! But Antonio Banderas as the voice of the fairy tale character "Puss in Boots" is way funny. Garfield, beware!

Van Helsing

VAN HELSING is pure cinematic comic book horror and Hugh Jackman knows how to pull it off (X-Men franchise). It's over-the-top and funny, and uses the Catholic Church (to an absurd extreme) and Catholic imagery and theological tradition, much like Nosferatu (the Dracula story is the Christ story in reverse) and other Dracula stories.

It's really a too-long hodge-podge of all the vampire/Frankenstein flicks that have come before - but it was fun. I think there's a commentary in there somewhere on what happens when technology, human life and religion mix. What makes a human being? And who gives life? What's going on with the maternal image?




Monday, May 17, 2004


TROY is a sobering and haunting film about the absolute folly of war.

Sure, the dialogue is elementary and not worthy of the epic nature of this film, and I am getting tired of computer-generated armies. The film is an adaptation of Homer's ILIAD - a history of ancient Greece. I have only read the parts of the ILIAD required by school and the ODYSSEY as interpreted by the Coen Brothers (O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?). However, I didn't get lost in the plot - which I found sufficiently complex to hold my attention. I want to read these now - more fodder for my desert island stint.

For all the cliche's, the stupidity of war is made clear enough - and they do it anyway.

What have we learned in the 3,200 years since the Trojan Horse and the beautiful face of Helen that launched a thousand ships?

Not much. Because we keep doing it over and over again. Einstein called it madness when someone keeps repeating the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

He must have read his ILIAD as a kid.

Don't listen to the critics on this one. The language is simple enough for the politicians to understand and they should appreciate that, rather than diss the film.

As I was leaving the theater I asked an older woman (well, older than me!) what she thought of the film. She said she loved it! I was kind of surprised, because that wasn't exactly how I would have expressed it. So I asked her why. She said, "Because it's the story! It's such a great story and told so well!" I responded that all I could think of was the world situation today and the US participation in the war in Iraq. She responded, "Yes, well, that's why my husband wouldn't come. Just hearing about this film reminded him of the war and he didn't want to see it."

Yes, Brad Pitt is a hunk and plays Achilles well (a character worth exploring because he seems to be amoral, but not so me thinks...), but my kudos go to Eric Bana who plays Hector, Prince of Troy. He was the most sane and bravest of the lot - though even he gave in to his younger brother (played by Orlando Bloom) to bring Helen to Troy - and that started the whole mess in the first place.


Sunday, May 16, 2004

Twilight Samurai

The TWILIGHT SAMURAI was in the official competition of the Berlin Film Festival in 2003 and one of the films that the ecumenical jury (of which I was privileged to be a member) considered for a prize. Michael Winterbottom's IN THIS WORLD won out (a pseudo-documentary about a displaced Afghan living in a refugee camp in Pakistan who travels to the UK illegally and obtains residency until his 18th birthday) but this lovely Japanese hisorical romance was a contender.

Not all the samurai were wealthy, and Seibei struggles to fulfill his destiny as a samurai though poor and without material goods to offer a prospective wife as his first wife has died, leaving him with two little daughters. He overcomes many obstacles with gentle honor, marries a good woman of a higher class who truly cares for him and the children.

I won't give away the ending ... This is a lovely film. Don't let the subtitles deter you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

National Film Retreat

If you like this blog I am hoping you will consider the NATIONAL FILM RETREAT (July 23-25, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles) where movie lovers gather every year (this summer will be our 8th retreat in five years) to talk and reflect on film, spirituality and theology. Our theme this year is "Matters of Conscience." The deadline for registration in June 25th.

The web site is located at

Sunday, May 9, 2004

Against the Ropes

Still playing catch up on some recent releases.

Saw AGAINST THE ROPES on the plane this past week. Some people say you cannot judge a film well if you see it on the plane because it's been edited for content, length - and to fit the screen. All valid points.

Except when a film isn't very good. I thought AGAINST THE ROPES may have been written with the best of intentions, but I have two problems with it. First, if the story was compelling once, it got lost along the way. Second, boxing. It's one of the sports I have no appreciation for. Look at Mohammad Ali. All that brain damage, failed marriages... and for what?

I looked at the man next to me who was watching the film, too. Only he fell asleep. When the film was over and he woke, I asked him if he liked the film. "Kinda boring..." Then I asked him what it was about boxing - did he like it? "Yes. It's the male ego. Gotta win."

FIGHT CLUB was a violent film, but rich in ideas. AGAINST THE ROPES, the fictionalized story of Jackie Kallen, a famous boxing promoter (well, famous for some; I didn't know who she was - sorry Ms. Kallen) could have taken it's place with films about women who overcame great obstacles to take their place in the world. Obviously, she had to overcome obstacles to do what she did. Alas, the telling lacks inspiration and drama. Omar Epps as Luther the boxer Kallen discovers is credible. Despite the Great Lakes accent (Detroit to Buffalo) that she has down perfectly, Meg Ryan must still be searching for the next memorable role.


(Ever notice on COLD CASE, the Sunday night TV show, that takes place in Philadelphia - no one has a Philadelphia accent? Everyone's imported from Manhattan.)


Saturday, May 8, 2004

Raising Helen

RAISING HELEN, directed by Garry Marshall, is a delight.

Helen, played to a "t" by Kate Hudson, is left three children to raise when her sister, their mom, as well as their dad, die in a car accident. Helen and her older sister Jenny both expect Jenny to be appointed the children's guardian, but instead, it is the carefree fashion agent Helen who is chosen. Jenny feels rejected (even though she is pregnant and has two other kids) and Helen overwhelmed, but because of the letter her dead sister leaves her, she embraces the children.

They move from Jersey to Queens, Helen loses her job at the fashion agency, and takes a job at a used car dealership (the owner also played to a "t" by Hector Elizondo) she enrolls the kids in a Lutheran school and the pastor, played by John Corbett, falls for her.

It's a little slow in the middle, but there are many genuinely good laughs and truths and the romance is not overplayed, nor the emotional jag from kids who are left orphans. The first better than average movie of the year for me.

Themes of grief, motherhood, letting go, embracing the new, risk, and the gift of life.

I really liked it, and so did the 13 other nuns who came to the screening with me!

(As did the audience... random "recruits" who were given free passes to get in. They were really "with" the story and you could tell by the laughs and chatter as people left that they enjoyed RAISING HELEN.)