Friday, December 31, 2004

Hero/Ying xiong

I just watched Hero on DVD. Although it was first released in 2002, was in competition at the Berlin Film Festival in 2003 (I was on the ecumenical jury there, and this is the one film that I missed because of scheduling), Hero only made it to US theaters in 2004.

The story is not difficult to follow. In ancient times, before China was united, an assassin, No Name (Jet Li) appears before the King of Qin (please check for the names of the actors). We think at first that No Name is going to kill him; instead, No Name must explain how he got rid of the “competition” to assassinate the King, who is trying to unite the warring provinces of what would become China.


Through a series of flash backs No Name reveals his relationship with other assassins. The tale is told through encounters between them, centered on a calligraphy school. The relationships of the assassins are presented through encounters which are lush, choreographed ballets of martial arts.


What I liked best was the philosophy of the film. While it seems that it is all about fighting, it is really about peace. The King says at one point:


“It just dawned on me! This scroll of Broken Sword's isn't about sword technique but about swordsmanship's ultimate ideal. Swordsmanship's first achievement is the unity of man and sword. Once this unity is attained, even a blade of grass can be a weapon. The second achievement is when the sword exists in one's heart when absent from one's hand. One can strike an enemy at 100 paces, even with bare hands. Swordsmanship's ultimate achievement is the absence of the sword in both hand and heart. The swordsman is at peace with the rest of the world. He vows not to kill and to bring peace to mankind.”


The film’s truth is that the pen is mightier than the sword. But even beyond this idea is that communication is the path to peace and non-violent ways of resolving differences. The sword must dissolve into the calligraphy instument, that is, the heart, for there to be peace - not the other way around.


I thought Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon handled the “flying” sequences better, or more smoothly, but Hero’s cinematography is stunning and it takes place in the light.

Monday, December 27, 2004

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou with underwhelming relish. Zissou is supposed to be a kind of Jacques Cousteau, or a National Geographic oceanographer filmmaker or something, but he’s actually a grass-smoking aquatic fraud in the midst of a midlife crisis that may have begun at least thirty years previously. At least.


When his best friend and partner (? we never see him) is killed by the Jaguar shark (?), Steve pledges to go and find the shark and kill him. When he is asked why, he says, “Why for revenge, of course.” That’s about the funniest line in the movie.


Team Zissou is in debt so Steve asks his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) to ask her parents for help. She refuses at first, and she refuses to go on the voyage. A pregnant reporter tags along  (Cate Blanchett) and Steve is interested in her, but things get complicated when Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) shows up. He’s a pilot from Kentucky Airways and he thinks Steve is his biological father, so he comes on the voyage, too. Alistair Hennessey plays Steve’s wealthy rival, in love (he is Eleanor’s former husband) and in discovery.


And so on and so forth. Enter Filipino pirates who take over Steve’s ship and who leave their three-legged dog behind when Steve fights them off. This makes Steve think the pirates were really dumb, but he kind of takes to the dog anyway. This part was pretty funny, too.


There was also about a three minute black out in the film when somebody threw the electrical switch on the ship; we couldn’t tell if the projector broke down at just the right place or if it was intended. Everyone stayed in the theater, though, and that’s when the laughter picked up a bit. It was so awful it was funny.


If you like quirky, you might like this film.


I like quirk, but only the kind from Australia.


This one’s from the sea of Mars.


Thursday, December 23, 2004

Hotel Rwanda


Hotel Rwanda: Bearing Witness


        On December 22, Hotel Rwanda, Golden Globe

nominee for Best Motion Picture – Drama, will open in Los Angeles and New York. Directed by Terry George, Hotel Rwanda is the story of Paul Rusesabagina who can rightly be called Rwanda’s Oskar Schindler. With the support of his wife, his business acumen and humble humanity,  Paul Rusesabagina was responsible for saving the lives of more than 1,200 Rwandan people during the genocide of 1994.


Back Story


        About six hundred years ago the Tutsi people came to live among the Hutu people in the African country now known as Rwanda. It is a beautiful land, now bound by the Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania. The people raised herds, farmed and mined to sustain themselves. Although more numerous than the Hutu, over time the Tutsi subjugated the Hutu people by forming a controlling monarchy. This resulted in continual tension between the two ethnic groups.


          Beginning in 1894 the German and then Belgian occupation kept the Tutsi in power. The1926 Belgian mandate that the people carry identity cards stating their ethnicity only made matters worse. The increased conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu eventually erupted into civil war in 1990, with extremist Hutu killing thousands of Tutsi. In 1993 a U.N. supported peace accord was signed by the Hutu President Habyarimana but he did not implement it. Finally, on April 6, 1994, extremist Hutu caused a plane crash that killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. The very night of President Habyarimana’s death marked the beginning of the systematic killing of the Tutsi people as well as moderate Hutu throughout the country - a genocide the governments of the world chose to ignore


Hotel Rwanda: 100 Days in 1994


In the capital city of Kigali, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) goes about his duties as the manager of the fashionable Milles Collines Hotel. He oversees everything. He moves around the city in the hotel van to pick up food and supplies. He trades favors with business owners, each to provide the other with things they don’t have. Going from place to place he talks to his driver Thomas about the importance of “style” in one’s professional life. Paul deftly avoids political conversations with his business associates. At one warehouse a wooden crate falls open and machetes fall out. Paul and Thomas quickly leave.


        Back at the hotel Paul confidently encourages the staff and greets guests. At day’s end Paul goes home to his beautiful wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and their children. But there is a disturbance in the neighborhood caused by the Hutu militia. In the next few days the political storm gathers and their relatives and mostly Tutsi neighbors instinctively take refuge with Paul, a Hutu and Tatiana, a Tutsi. Because of his prestigious job at the hotel and his personal integrity, the neighbors trust him.


         A news crew (David O’Hara and Joaquin Phoenix) arrives from Europe because they have received word that the ethnic tension in Rwanda is exploding and thousands of Tutsi are being murdered. Hotel guests start to panic because the airport has been closed. Paul’s friend from U.N., Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte) tells Paul he is frustrated because the U.N. has withdrawn most of its peacekeeping troops, leaving only 270 out of 2,500. They cannot do anything but watch the massacre. Within a few days, however, Oliver manages to evacuate the guests to the airport. Things have become too dangerous for the news crew as well, and they leave with startling footage.


         The situation in Paul’s neighborhood deteriorates. After his son witnesses the murder of a friend one night, Paul decides to evacuate everyone who has taken refuge in his home to the hotel. Soon, a Red Cross worker arrives at the hotel with some orphans, followed by a priest, local nuns with more children. Paul negotiates with his friends, now in the military and police, calling in favors, to keep the people safe and fed. Paul calls the hotel’s main office in Brussels to ask the company contact the Belgian government for immediate assistance but the government refuses to intervene in any way. When travel visas come through for many of the people in the hotel who have friends and family in other countries, Paul, Tatiana and their children board the trucks with them. At the last minute though, Paul decides to stay to care for those who remain behind yelling out to Tatiana, “I cannot leave these people to die,"


         Tatiana is wild with anger at Paul for not coming with them, but before the trucks can get out of the city, they are stopped and the people terrorized by the militia. The U.N. escort guides them back to the hotel and Paul and Tatiana are reunited. Meanwhile rumors of atrocities abound, and Paul and Tatiana make plans in case the inconceivable happens and the Hutu militia attacks.


         1,268 men, women and children hunker down in the hotel amidst great danger to wait for help from the outside world that never comes. All the while, Paul is the exemplary host to his guests at the Milles Collines Hotel.


The Film


Hotel Rwanda is a based on a true story and historical events about a time when the world closed its eyes to great human need. It is a visceral film that bears witness to one of Africa’s greatest tragedies through the eyes and experience of one man and his family. Don Cheadle is remarkable as the ordinary, likeable, calm and suave hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina. Cheadle claims the role with such dignity and credibility that we know he is the man who could save a thousand lives. Sophie Okonedo (Dirty Pretty Things) is exceptionally well cast as the wife. Her anguish when Paul proposes what she should do in the eventof Hutu attack is heart wrenching and real. Hotel Rwanda, for its stark, understated style, story and exceptional acting, has great Oscar potential. Don Cheadle is amazing.


         Hotel Rwanda is familiar social justice territory for director/co-writer Terry George whose previous credits include In the Name of the Father and Some Mother’s Son about the troubles in Northern Ireland.


          Amnesty International’s Artists for Amnesty

spokesperson Angelina Jolie introduced the film with Harrison Ford at the premiere screening in Los Angeles at the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on December 2. She said that Hotel Rwanda brings the audience into Kigali ten years ago when the world chose to ignore the mass killings, much the same way as the ongoing emergency crisis in Darfour, Sudan. It took 100 days for the world to respond to Rwanda, but the situation of starvation, thirst, and extreme human rights violations in Darfour, Sudan, is now in its 21st month and the world continues to do nothing.


        “This movie is a message,” said Paul Rusesabagina who was present at the screening of Hotel Rwanda with his wife, Tatiana. “My dream and my wish is that you will be messengers who will tell other people about what you have seen. The tragedy in Rwanda was only recognized as genocide after the fact. It is time that Africa be considered as a continent, and that its people be recognized as human beings and given the same human rights as people all over the world."


        Some movies inform, some movies entertain and some movies bear witness to the human face of God in the midst of tragedy. Hotel Rwanda is such a film.



The Aviator

Director Martin Scorsese marches to his own music. He makes a lot of dark films that don’t net him a lot of money (Bringing Out the Dead, for example.) I disliked Gangs of New York very much because it didn’t look authentic, it was not emotionally convincing and it seemed a big unwieldy violent beast.


But with The Aviator, Scorsese got my attention. The Aviator is a very interesting movie, as clichéd as that sounds. It kept my attention for 169 minutes, and I do not like looonggg movies. When Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells off Senator Brewster (Alan Alda) at a senate hearing about Hughes’ supposed misuse of government funds for aircraft development during World War II, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Brewster was in the pocket of the president of PAN AM (played by Alec Baldwin) and trying to draft an airline monopoly into law. Even though Hughes was suffering from mental illness, he came out of it enough to win the day.


When that huge Hercules aircraft lifts off the ocean at the end of the film, I wanted to cheer again – out of pity for a man who today could have been helped by medication, and out of admiration for a man who did incredible things because he could, against terrible personal odds.


The film begins in the 1920’s when Hughes is into making movies: his was the first multi-million dollar film ever made, Hell’s Angels. He is already exhibiting signs of the obsessive-compulsive-paranoid disorder that will become more dominant as the years pass. He begins a relationship with Katharine Hepburn, amazingly played, accent and all, by the versatile Australian Cate Blanchette. Hughes goes from movies to aircraft, keeping an interest in both, but succeeding with airplanes in a way that can only be called gifted and inspirational.


The movie ends around 1947, in the middle of things; we don’t find out a lot about his early life (other than a hint that his mother may have had mental problems as well and to learn that his parents had died by the time he was in his twenties) or what happened after the Hercules flew. We do get insight into his illness - and his penchant for very young women and movie stars, though he hated the limelight. Hughes was certainly no saint.


In a year when epic films have gone pretty much bust, The Aviator succeeds. For it is an epic biopic. Howard Hughes is too huge a historical, Hollywood and aviation personality to deserve anything less than a film like this.


And did I tell you how good Leo is? I felt that he is totally believable in the role and if he gets some award attention, he deserves it.


Hold on. The Aviator is quite a ride.


(I saw this at The Bridge cinema at the Hughes Center, just off the Howard Hughes Pkwy in Culver City – now I really get the connection. Culver City is where much of the film story took place.)


A woman at Princeton University’s admissions office opens an application and begins to read an essay. A girl’s voice over narrates the story of how she, Cristina, (Shelbie Bruce) and her mother, Flor (Paz Vega), came to the United States from Mexico, and their life once they arrived in Los Angeles.


Flor works two jobs to support Cristina. But when Flor realizes Cristina is growing up and needs her mother’s guidance regarding boys, she decides to search for a job that will pay enough to allow her to do this. She has never learned English because they have lived in the barrio, so she goes for an interview to the Clasky’s home in Beverly Hills with her cousin. Deborah Clasky (Tea Leoni) hires Flor immediately, even though she cannot pronounce her name. John Clasky (Adam Sandler) is a world class chef but manages his hours so he can spend time with his family. Deborah’s alcoholic mother Evelyn (Cloris Leachman) lives with them. The Clasky’s have two children, the sweet, smart and pudgy Bernice (Sarah Steele) and Georgie (Ian Hymand.)


Deborah is extremely high maintenance and clueless about Mexican culture, though everyone else catches on quickly. She also does not know who she is. As a result, Deborah puts her marriage at risk, and hurts Bernie by her incredibly high standards and what is actually a cruel attitude toward her daughter’s appearance. John is easier going with the children, and Deborah is always upset at him because they are not on “the same page” regarding the children


Things go along pretty well until the Clasky’s decide to rent a house in  Malibu for the summer and insist that Flor move in with them. Now Flor tells them she has a daughter, and cannot. Deborah pretty much gives her an ultimatum, and Flor agrees to let Cristina stay for the summer, too. Cristina is lovely, and Deborah interferes between her and Flor, acting as if Cristina is the daughter she really deserves. Meanwhile, Flor begins to learn English. And things get very complicated between Flor, Cristina, John, Deborah and Bernie. And don’t forget the dog. Never throw a ball and have the dog fetch it…


Spanglish, written and directed by James L. Brooks (As Good As It Gets, Jerry McGuire) is not at all what I expected from the trailers. I was surprised by Brooks’ insight into the mother-daughter relationships that he portrays in very believable ways – as well as the immigrant experience from the perspective of newcomers to the United States and the “white” people who employ them.


This is a very nice film about women and the mothers who raise them. It is also about the nature of love as communication.


It is also very rare to successfully have a girl do a voice over narration, but Brooks does it well. Most coming of age movies are all about boys and fathers. Spanglish is thus a refreshing approach.


Perhaps this is Sandler’s transition film into grown-up movies. He is good in the movie.


At the end, Cristina, with much love says something like this: “If you accept me into Princeton, I will be flattered, but it will not define me. It is my mother who has defined me and made me the person I am and this is all I need."

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Sea Inside/Mar adentro

The Sea Inside/Mar adentro is based on the true story of Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic who struggled with the Spanish legal system for almost 30 years for the right to die, or the right to be put to death. The film is exquisitely directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Others, writer for Vanilla Sky.)


The film opens with Ramon (Javier Bardem) being cared for in the house of his brother (Celso Bugallo) by his sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera). His father lives with them as well. Ramon has a strong and positive influence on the entire family. Three visitors come: Gene (Clara Segura) who is with the organization that supports the right to choose life or death, Julia (Belen Rueda), a lawyer with a degenerative disease, who will take Ramon’s case to court, and Rosa (Lola Duenas), a disc jockey and single mother of two who sees Ramon on television and comes to him for her own needs. There is a fourth visitor, Padre Francisco (Jose Maria Pou), also a quadriplegic, who first insults the family for not loving Ramon enough and then tries to convince Ramon from a philosophical point of view that life is worth living. (How I regretted the approach this priest took in the film; did it happen in real life? I would hope that clergy and all pastoral workers will take note of how not to minister to the sick, even if you share their disease.) How these guests and the family interact with Ramon and the journey they take with him, is the story of the film.


Ramon takes journeys inside his head – back to the accident that made him a quadriplegic, back to the many countries he visited as a young sailor, and just to the freedom of the landscape and the sea beyond his window. The film is located in La Coruna in the Galicia province in Spain. I had the priviledge of visiting there for a week in 1995 for a media education conference at the University of La Coruna. I only had Saturday afternoon of that week to walk around the city (when I could still walk long distances and before I knew I had MS). La Coruna is a very old and marvelous city. Unfortunately I started my trek about 1:00pm when everything was closing for four hours - siesta time! All the many churches were closed, too, except the chapel of the Poor Clare nuns. I prayed there for awhile. The architecture of La Coruna is singular: the buildings along the waterfront and sea shore are all made of windows that look like thin alabaster in the sun. If you know this, then the film is even more moving.


The Sea Inside has already won many awards, including the Grand Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival (2004) and is being nominated for others. In terms of story-telling, this film is at the top of its class. Bardem, who won great acclaim as the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnable’s 2000 film Before Night Falls, only keeps adding to his impressive filmography as one of today’s finest actors.


The Sea Inside builds a case for mercy-killing. Ramon speaks of love – that if someone loves him, then they will help him die when the courts delay and refuse his plea. But isn’t love about willing the good of “the other”? There are some very strong moments in the film where Ramon and his brother and Rosa argue about euthanasia. All I could think of is: what is the nature of love? Ramon expected others to fulfill their love for him by helping him die, but he seemed to have missed out on what his death would mean to those who loved him – the loss. He seemed selfish to me. They cared for him unconditionally, yet he put conditions on his love. They had to help him die, and when they will not, he turns to those who will.


Ramon has a sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. Someone asks him as his sister-in-law turns him in bed: how can you smile so much? He responds: “When your life depends so much on others, you learn to cry with a smile." Ramon had so much to give.


Julia helps Ramon publish his poems. The publication date becomes a deadline – literally. Julia, who has a neurological condition that makes her keep having strokes (I missed the name of it in the film), reinforces Ramon’s dilemma in the sense that her condition becomes so serious she cannot make the final determination about her life; Ramon still can and he will.


If you are a person with a chronic disease, like MS, you can understand Ramon and Julia, even if you cannot agree with their nihilistic rationale. The film touched me deeply. For MS patients, you never know what the next day will bring, if you will wake up blind or unable to walk. But you just keep going, one foot in front of the other, because life is good in itself – and the alternative is unacceptable. I understood the film because I could identify with many aspects of what the characters were living with. Yet I reject Ramon and Julia’s conclusion that we are the master’s of our own final destiny, that death is preferable to life. This is the paradox of Catholic teaching about life: we say it is a holy thing to be martyred for the love of Christ, that we live well to die and to be with God in eternity. Yet, it is not up to us to choose how or the means, or to carry out this death that awaits us all; we are never to make a direct attack on the life of another, or even assist in it, as happens in the film. Suicide is not an option on the smorgasbord of ways to end one’s life, as is presented in The Sea Inside.


If Ramon ever had faith, he lost it. He no longer believed in life after death. If you believe in everything, then ultimately you believe in nothing; if you believe in nothing, then anything is permissible. The story of Ramon Sampedro is the face of nihilism in today’s world. The Sea Inside is a brilliant, heart-wrenching film that sheds light on nothingness.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

This is the tale of the Baudelaire children: Violet, aged 14, Klaus, aged 12 and Sunny, the baby, who liked to chew things. One day while they are at the sea shore, their parents are killed in a fire and their house burned down. Mr. Poe, the banker, brings them the bad news and takes them to stay with the nearest of only distant relatives, Count Olaf. The Count is an evil actor who only wants the children’s fortune.


The film (based on the first three of the wildly popular series of books of the same title) is the story of how one unfortunate event leads to another in the lives of the Baudelaire children.


To prepare for the film, I started reading the books and have made it almost through the second. I like the style because it encourages the reader to engage on many levels, especially focusing on reading and imagination.<o:p></o:p>


The problem for me is the darkness in the books, and in the film. We could call Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events a fantasy-myth tale of three heroes who overcome great odds to triumph over evil. The problem is that in children’s literature this genre would be “assisted by a protective figure” ( see Children’s Literature, Briefly by Jacobs & Tunnell, 2004, Prentice Hall) – and there is none. What the film does is reinforce the popular culture notion that kids have to take care of themselves and that grown-ups are evil, inept or just plain stupid, trust no one and bad things are going to happen no matter what. The end of the film tries to make the outlook hopeful for the Baudelaire children, but a voice over does not balance out the drama and visuals that have come before.


The film is an excellent visual reproduction of the books, though it mixes up the sequence of unfortunate events somewhat. Jim Carrey is good as Jim Carrey (oops! Count Olaf), Billy Connolly as Montgomery Montgomery and  Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine fulfill their roles well enough and the art direction is more than adequate. The problem is: there is no benevolent figure in the film (or so far in the books) that comforts and cares for children. Thus, the film to me fits the horror-fantasy genre more than any other. And I think kids who can identify with loneliness, abandonment, abuse and evil, inept and just plain stupid adults (or social system) may find a kind of strength or catharsis in the film. They go because they are already scared and need to figure out a way to survive.


If this is the case, then we as a society (and faith communities) need to reflect seriously on why these books appeal to kids, and what we are doing about the lost children in our country and world. A friend told me that he knew a ten year-old child of divorce who loved the books and could not get enough of them. Perhaps the books transported the child to a place where he could figure things out and exorcise his experiences.


A series of unfortunate events is one thing; imagine a lifetime. Pretty depressing on the one hand; on the other it can help us open our eyes and act for the good of our children


Is Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, the books or the film, just harmless literature? Seems to me it is coming from someone’s experience, transformed by imagination.


Although the film had a beginning and a middle, the ending was unsatisfactory and unsatisfying. Like it was tacked on. I just didn’t like the film all that much.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Million Dollar Baby



A male voice over tells the story of Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) who owns a gym in Los Angeles where would-be boxing contenders train. Frankie is a hardened trainer who studies Gaelic in his free time. Eddie (Morgan Freeman) is a kind of assistant maintenance man, who was one of Frankie’s fighters until he was blinded in a fight. He lost. Frankie is a Catholic who goes to Mass everyday.  He has a kind of contentious relationship with the parish priest whom he is always questioning about matters of faith. The priest tells him he has to believe – and write to his daughter.


Frankie is dismayed when the man who is his best hope for winning leaves him to go with another trainer/manager. This happens because Frankie doesn’t trust him enough to let him fight for a title. Just about then, a young woman (Hilary Swank) shows up at the gym and pays for six months of training. Her name is Maggie Fitzgerald. She is 31 and she wants to fight; she waitresses for money. She tells Frankie that it’s only when she is boxing that she feels like she is living when he tells her she is too old to learn boxing. Maggie wants Frank to train her because he is the best, but he resists for a long time. But after a year or so, he puts her in the ring and she wins twelve straight fights by knocking out her opponents in the first round. They end up in England, where Maggie wins again. They stay in Europefor awhile and Maggie wins more fights.


Frank always tells her that the first thing she has to do is protect herself. Frank goes home at night to see all the letters he has sent to his daughter returned to him. Little by little, Maggie has grown on him as if she were a daughter.



Maggie has been saving up her money and buys her mother, who lives on welfare in Southwestern Missouri, a house. Her mother (Margo Martindale) is unappreciative and yells at Maggie because if she has a house, she can no longer get welfare and take care of the rest of the family.


Frank ups Maggie’s class so she can win another women’s boxing title in Las Vegas, a straight split for a million dollars. But her opponent is ruthless, and whenever the referee isn’t looking, she attacks Maggie. Finally, when Maggie turns around to return to her corner, the woman punches Maggie so badly that she falls and breaks her neck, severing her spinal cord. She is now a quadriplegic and cannot breathe on her own.


After two months in the hospital, Frank accompanies Maggie to a rehab center in Los Angeles. Maggie becomes dispirited. She eventually asks Frank to help her die. Frank refuses and goes to talk to his priest about it. The priest listens and tells Frank it is wrong to help someone die, and that he will be lost if he does this thing.


Maggie tries to commit suicide by biting her tongue, twice. She almost bleeds to death. The doctors keep her sedated so she will not do it again.


Frank decides to help her die. One night he goes to the rehab center, kisses her on the forehead, disconnects her breathing tube and injects a huge dose of adrenaline into her I.V. Frank disappears after, returning to a place in Missouri where he and Maggie had eaten lemon meringue pie, and even Eddie cannot find him.




Million Dollar Baby is a film that will reach in and wrench your soul, no matter how much you might disagree with its premise that euthanasia is okay. The film is written by one of my favorite screen and television writers, Paul Haggis. I think I am the only fan in the world that taped and still have all the episodes of EZ Streets that aired before the show was cancelled in 1996. Brilliant, dark television about people’s souls and the battles they fight there.


Million Dollar Baby is such a film, but it deals unsatisfactorily with two huge moral issues for me. One is boxing itself. Eddie’s voice over says more than once that boxing is unnatural. I agree. I could hardly watch the boxing sequences in this film, or any other boxing movie for thatmatter. Boxing is worse and more senseless than football or ice hockey on abad day.


The other moral problem is that of euthanasia; it, too, is unnatural. To deliberately act against life is always wrong. The ends do not justify the means - ever.


The film never talks about the moral dilemma of euthanasia really, nor does it explore any options for Maggie. No one talks with her about the pros of living or the hopelessness of dying by your own hand or that of another.


What the film does so effectively is take us in and make us feel every bit of Maggie’s misery and Frank’s self-blame. It makes us think that euthanasia was the only choice. Therefore, as a human being and a Catholic, the film is a disappointment to me. We can always choose life. I refuse to not believe in hope.


A medical ethics argument can be made that Maggie’s care was extraordinary treatment. Even though the boxing commission was paying for it, a person is not required to ask for or be given extremely expensive care. A person has a right to die naturally under normal care. However, neither Frank nor anyone had the right to kill Maggie, which is what he did by giving her the excessive dose of adrenaline. This was a direct attack on the person.


Nothing in the film happens in the light. The movie has a film noir quality about it, beginning with Eddie’s voice over. Film noir is usually about the dark side of policebusiness and the criminal underbelly of life. The film has these qualities because of the location of the gym, the lighting – and maybe the crime of euthanasia. No one overreaches in this film, and the acting is minimal, convincing and heartbreaking.


Million Dollar Baby gets its name from the prize-money purse and the fact that Maggie only weighed a little over two pounds when she was born. She had to fight to survive from the moment of birth.


Director Clint Eastwood and writer Paul Haggis have crafted a superb movie that works on every level except the ethical and moral. It’s too bad it is nihilism dressed up as compassion. But may it like other films of 2004 about life issues, launch a million conversations.

The Phantom of the Opera

Phantom of the Opera


In Paris, a few years before World War I, there is an auction at the Paris Opera House. An old man and woman arrive separately to place their bids. When the auctioneer comes to the old chandelier, we are transported to another time, in the 1850’s, when the opera house was in its prime, and a masked ghost (Gerard Butler) was said to haunt the building. He was a musical genius and at night would sing to young Christine (Emmy Rosum), an orphan being raised by Madam Giry (Miranda Richardson) and trained for the opera. Christine thought he was the spirit of her deceased father, sent back to care for her.


But there are new “producers” for the opera, Firmin (Ciaran Hinds) and Andre (Simon Callow) and they irritate just about everyone, including the Phantom. There is also a new benefactor for the Opera, Raoul (Patrick Wilson). Christine recognizes him as a childhood friend, and their friendship is soon rekindled. The temperamental prima donna Carlotta (Minnie Driver) is not pleased and quits. Christine takes her place, pleasing the Phantom. When Carlotta stages a comeback in the Phantom’s new opera, the Phantom is displeased, and kills a man. And so on and so forth, until his story is told, and his love for Christine professed.


This is a very synthesized version of the story.


I think the film version of Andre Lloyd Weber’s musical, The Phantom of the Opera, is wonderful – for several reasons. The theatrics are spellbinding; I couldn’t take my eyes of the screen for a moment. Joel Schumacher is a production expert, and his work here is a feast for the eyes. Another reason is the story itself. I saw the musical twice in the 1990’s, once on Broadway (the mother of one of the nuns got us tickets and incredible seats), and once in London (where the cast seemed to have been very, very tired.) I could never empathize with the Phantom, he never seemed to deserve redemption in the dramatic sense. Thinking about it now, I would say that the stage versions were so brilliant that I was too busy experiencing the production than understanding the characters. In this film, it is finally clear that the story belongs to Christine, and that she does her best to redeem this hapless, cruel, injured human being.


In a couple of places the high notes were a little strained, but this didn’t work against the film’s emotional force because the Phantom’s actions are “off” as well - unnatural. Minnie Driver deserves a “best supporting actress” nomination – she is deliciously comic and annoying as the opera company’s prima donna. Emmy Rossum is excellent as Christine, a lovely screen presence. The two producers are lackluster and don't add as much here as they do to the stage version. Visually, my only disappointment was that the figure of the Phantom in red during the masquerade ball didn't match the stage version. Perhaps just as well, but my eyes were waiting for that deep red, passionate color to match the passion of his song. The film should get a nod for the cinematography and editing as well. And if you never understood what art direction meant before, well, you can practically taste it here.


They say nothing can surpass live theater, but The Phantom comes very close. This is the grand Hollywood production I have been waiting for all year. Just enjoy.

Friday, December 17, 2004


Alfred Kinsey (1894 – 1956) was a zoologist at Indiana University. In the course of his teaching he realized that there was great ignorance among his students about human sexuality. He found that no one had ever studied the sexual behavior of the human animal, so he did. He began to research by conducting sex interviews. When he published his studies (a volume about men and another about women), it caused a great controversy because it challenged constructed social mores, cultural convention, religious teaching and objective moral norms as well. That he couldn’t understand or see was the necessity to recognize all of these aspects in relation to sexual behavior. This resulted in him being an expert on what people do, not why they do it or what the consequences of such activity might be. 


The film, written and directed by Bill Condon, is not what I expected. I had decided not to see it but a Protestant minister friend did and suggested that it might be a good one to look at for pastoral reasons.


The movie starts out showing that Al Kinsey (Liam Neeson) loved nature, tried to be a good pious boy but he could never please his father, who was a Methodist preacher. He refused to study engineering as his father wanted and got his degree in biology instead. His life’s work for many years was studying gall wasps. He met his wife, Mac (Laura Linney) at Indiana University where he was teaching. They married and had three children. He began his sex studies when he realized how little the students knew about sexuality. He trained three researchers played by Chris O’Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard and Timothy Hutton. Sarsgaard is Clyde and Al has an affair with him. When Al tells Mac about their first encounter, she is horrified because they have marriage vows. Later, however, she, too, sleeps with Clyde.


Most of the movie is about Al’s life as a researcher of the sexual behavior of the human animal, how he carried out his interviews, the results of the research, the impact of the published research on people, his need for funding, etc. and his own personal sexual journey.  He finally learns to empathize with his cold and overbearing father, Alfred (John Lithgow), when Al (or Prok as he was nicknamed by his students) interviews him after his mother has died. Alfred admits that he was forced to wear a leather chastity belt as a child and he breaks down and cries because no one would talk to him about what he was feeling and what his body was doing, and masturbation (which Kinsey discoverd most of the population engages in at one time or another, males more than females.)


The film is very well crafted and uses Kinsey’s interview style to frame the story, and some of the verbal and visual descriptions are explicit. Though an effort is made to be somewhat clinical, this wasn't always successful.


The most important issue to keep in mind here is that Kinsey’s concept of the human person is not an integrated one. To him, we are human animals, thus his research does not take into consideration anything transcendent like love, freedom and responsibility. Guilt, remorse, and other consequences are not of interest to him, except that they should be done away with because sexual behavior, no matter its expression, is normal. Lots of women have abortions, but what of the aftermath of such an experience, the long-term effect on the mother, the father, never mind that a baby is dead? What is the cumulative effect of abortion on society? If Kinsey had any concern, the film never shows this. Concepts like love came to him only late in life. He could not understand why there was conflict between two of his researchers when one had sex with the other’s wife. He was upset because it interfered with the research, not because a bond and promise had been broken. His only “moral” standard was that no one ever be hurt.


Kinsey did some things right: he forced people to name body parts properly in social discourse, he named sexual behavior for what it was: masturbation, homosexuality, pre-marital intercourse, extra-marital intercourse, etc. This alone disturbed many people, even the ones who engaged in such behavior. He helped lower people’s anxiety about sexuality by destroying false myths about it. But he created an even bigger myth: that sexual behavior of any kind is normal as long as no one gets hurt.


What Kinsey failed to take into consideration, according to the film, is the essential difference between human beings and animals: the soul, conscience, morality, ethics. He always proclaimed that he was a scientist, not a moralist. His view was that because everyone was doing it, it was normal, and therefore OK. He pretty much gave people permission to do it, too, whatever it was.


Another problem with Kinsey for me, as presented in the film, is his lack of integration as a human person. For all his intelligence, he refused (or could not) to recognize that this is one of the things that made him and us different from the animal world. Kinsey was interested in the physical, certainly, but that only included the genitals, not the brain. He ridiculed chastity and the belief that procreation is the purpose of intercourse within marriage.


Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is just as ground-breaking as Kinsey’s research, though it appraises sexuality from a completely different perspective, the first of which is a respect for chastity, and then philosophy. This theology, a way to find and study God and ourselves through the body, respects the dignity and integrity of the human person. It reminds us that because of who we are as human beings, we are called to live in freedom and responsibility for self and others.


This is difficult news in today’s society that often thinks the only moral norm is that everything is ok so long as no one gets hurt. This is the dilemma at the core of TV shows like Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me. The characters know that transcendence is part of who they are as persons, that there is more to life than sexual behavior. They know that freedom is balanced in the universe and in their souls by responsibility. Because they are struggling with needs, wants, freedom and responsibility, and because they often make choices that are selfish rather than life-affirming, they are unhappy (hence the drama that keeps audiences coming back and using the TV situations for moral laboratories). The characters are searching for meaning and intimacy, and slowly discovering that sexual activity alone does not provide it. They are living according to Kinsey's research conclusions (whether they know it or not), but it's not making them happy.


Kinsey never discovered or decided to deal with these issues. Because he isolated sexual behavior from responsibility, he seems to have left more chaos than understanding, depending on your point of view, or your beliefs. By normalizing everything, everything became acceptable. No one wants to go back to old wives tales or chastity belts or hell fire to scare people into conformity or to control them, but neither is everything right just because it is possible to do it. There is always an effect, a consequence to our choices and our omissions.


From a pastoral perspective, however, what we see how people struggle with their sexuality and their gender orientation and how these very strong drives often conflict with morality, cultural and religious expectations, etc. Thus we can learn empathy, because everyone is human.


Kinsey is another film that will launch a million conversations. My sense is that what you bring to this film is what you will get out of it. 

Monday, December 13, 2004

Ocean's Twelve


I’m confused. Is Tess (Julia Roberts) the new member of the gang - # 12, or is it Molly Star (Cherry Jones)? Is it the French crook, Francois (Vincent Cassel) or Matsui (Robbie Coltaine)?  Is it the mysterious La Marque (Albert Finney)? Nah. It must be Bruce Willis who just played Bruce Willis.


On their second third anniversary, Tess and Danny Ocean (George Clooney) are living quietly in East Haven, CT (why?). Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), the owner/manager of the Bellaggio Casino in Las Vegas that Danny and his original band robbed blind a few years back in the film Ocean’s Eleven, appears and tells Tess he wants all the money back, with interest. She signals Danny who goes to ground. One by one Terry makes contact with the other ten. He gives them two weeks to get him the money. The Eleven get together, another thief gets involved, and they eventually go after a priceless gold Faberge Easter Egg that belonged to the Romanoffs.


I did not really understand why the Ocean’s Eleven guys needed to pay the money back to Terry, unless it was honor among thieves of one kind or another. After all, the insurance took care of it and Terry didn’t really have anything on these guys. Nevertheless, the heist caper begins.


Ocean’s Twelve is a grin for Hollywood insiders: the stars wink and they nod back at each other. There are shades of director Soderbergh and George Clooney’s “K Street" which had a short run on HBO in 2003 (and which I rather liked.) Elliptical conversations, handheld camera, and celebrities playing themselves abounded then and now. Ocean’s Twelve, like Eleven, is a caper movie – nice guys who do something wrong and we enjoy watching them get away with it.


Heist movies exist in their own moral universe. Between bad guys and really bad guys, it’s a matter of which guys are more sympathetic than others (admittedly, there are some gals involved, too.) Heist movies can be fun because they are clever. I don’t know what they call the syndrome that attacks an audience of usually ordinary people and makes them empathize with these crooks, but it must be because of a lack of options. And then the movie stars seem to start at about 20 years old and go until 75 – so the audience can identify with at least one person. Heist movies make stealing and robbing look like fun. They do it because they can. You know, like climbing mountains.


There are differences among heist movies. Some are elegant (like The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968 or 1998 versions), some are very violent (The Italian Job, 2003) and some, like the Ocean’s franchise (will there be a 13?), don’t have any violence, bad language (there was a bleep scene in Ocean’s Twelve, but nothing explicit) and no sex, and some elegance  – but are completely immoral. Such is the nature of the heist genre.


Ocean’s Twelve is a lark. It’s not the smartest movie I’ve ever seen, it is very self-conscious, but it was one way to spend $6.50 on a Sunday afternoon.

Thursday, December 9, 2004

A Very Long Engagement/Un long dimanche de fiançailles

Just watching A Very Long Engagement, by the same writer/director of Amelie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is indeed a very long engagement.


It is the story of two young children, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou, Dirty Pretty Things) and Menache (Gaspard Ulliel) who fall in love as teenagers and become engaged just before Menache is conscripted into the French Army in 1917 during World War I. He would write M M M everywhere =  Menache Marries Mathilde and Matilde Marries Menache. 


The battles are terrible and the generals are stupid. Menache and four others each injure a hand (in scenes that are extremely explict and violent) so they will be sent home from the front. Instead, they are sentenced to death. They must walk into the “no man’s land” between the French and German trenches and serve as bait to get things, the battle, going again. As they walk through the French trenches, they are warned to watch out for the wire – that is, the telephone wire that was connected to the French president who could commute their sentence.


That’s about all I can really say. A Very Long Engagement is a war story, as terrible as anything Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan) or Anthony Minghella can create (The English Patient and Cold Mountain.) The battle scenes are relentless and horrible. The film is a love story, as tender and as difficult as a Minghella film. In fact, the convoluted way the timeline is played out reminded be of both The English Patient and Cold Mountain. Then, the film is a mystery, and this is where it excels. Just how Mathilde works out in 1920 what happened and when and who knows what, kept me interested, though I could have done without some of the twists and turns.


A Very Long Engagement has only one major problem: it isn’t what I or some of the other folks in the audience expected (I chatted with some ladies afterwards.) The previews on television and in the theaters make it look like a tender love story. It is mostly a story of a stupid, senseless, brutal war and one general in particular, and a mystery. Very short on romance (but with some sex), though it fits the genre overall because of the sacrifices the two young people were willing to make for one another. But it was also too complicated for its own good. It starts off with five stories and grows and grows. At a certain point I am sure even Mathilde couldn’t connect the dots – but she does.


Jodie Foster is a surprise, and her French sounded very good to me. There is gentle humor in the film and it is rich in symbolism. The cinematography is beautiful; this must have been a very expensive film to produce. The sepia tone gives in a credible dated look.


There are signs everywhere. Mathilde keeps saying, “If I can get to the bend in the road before that car, I will know he’s alive.” “If the dog comes in before it’s time for dinner, I will know he’s alive.” She loves, believes, hopes and never gives up.


There are many "story morals" here, too, especially in the parallel search that a woman named Tina makes.


This is a believable, epic story. Is this Academy worthy? It should get a nomination, but it just didn't make me say, "Ah ha!"

Wednesday, December 8, 2004

The Incredibles

The Incredibles is the animated story of a family of superheroes that comes from enforced retirement (or something like the witness protection program) to once again save the day


PIXAR (Finding Nemo) did the animation, and it is superb.


Mr. Incredible or Bob Parr in real life (voice of Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl or Helen in real life (voice of Holly Hunter) get married after early careers saving the day in a big city. They and their colleague Frozone, or Lucius in real life (voice of Samuel L. Jackson), are forced to retire because they keep saving people who don’t want to be saved and who then sue. The insurance companies can’t keep up with the damages of the lawsuits, so superheroes become a thing of the past.


Mr. Incredible, however, had a Number One fan, Buddy Pine. Although not endowed with superhero powers, he earnestly tried to emulate everything Mr. Incredible did but Mr. Incredible dismissed Buddy as a nuisance.


So the Incredibles move to the ‘burbs and start a family with daughter Violet (Sarah Vowel), and sons Dash (Spencer Fox) and Jack Jack (see for all the voices…). Mr. Incredible, now Bob, works as a claims adjustor with an insurance company and Helen stays home with the children. Violent is very shy and can disappear at will; she can also create protective bubbles around her. Dash can run very fast, and doesn’t compete because he would win and draw attention to the family.


One day a woman makes contact with Mr. Incredible and gives him a superhero assignment. He carries it out in secret because Helen really wants to obey the rules set down for them by the insurance company. When he is called again for another assignment, things get very complicated and Helen, the kids and Frozone all join in to save the day.


The Incredibles is a spoof on superhero comics, and film-goers will notice connections from other films from Spider-Man to Spy Kids to the James Bond franchise. The Incredibles was written and directed by Brad Bird who also made Iron Giant.


There are also some evocative story morals tossed out for the audience, too. The one that impressed me the most was when Buddy (who becomes the instigator in the plot: Syndrome) tells Mr. Incredible that if he had only been kind to him and supported him, he would not have caused such havoc. Perhaps there's a parallel for the world situation today. e.g. “superpowers” and “evil-doers”. If everyone becomes a superhero, you don't need superheros anymore, either.


I found The Incredibles incredibly long – and I must be the only reviewer who thinks so. It is smart, funny, and clever but it’s just one action sequence after another. The best character is Edna “E” Mode who creates superhero costumes. I liked Holly Hunter’s voice for Elastigirl/Helen. It has character.


There is much to like about The Incredibles and it will probably get the Oscar for best animation film. But I liked The Polar Express much more – and it gets my vote.

Tuesday, December 7, 2004


I am still trying to work out how I feel about Closer, Mike Nichols’ film version of a 1997 play by Patrick Marber. It is described as a drama/romance. I think it is the drama of attempted romance and a smattering of rather cynical comedy emerges as a result


A young woman, played by Natalie Portman, is hit by a cab as she crosses a London street. She is aided by Dan (Jude Law), a would-be novelist who is employed as an obituary writer. As they walk along after she has been tended to in the emergency room, they come across a cemetery memorial for people who died saving others. Dan asks the girl her name and she says it is Alice. She had been a stripper in New York. She moves in with Dan (though we find this out later; the time sequencing is uneven but it adds a quality to the film that keeps the viewer engaged trying to figure out what's happening and when.)


Later, Dan has written a book that is to be published and his photographic portrait is being taken by Anna (Julia Roberts using her name from Notting Hill and the camera skills she learned in Step-Mom, I guess). They are immediately attracted to one another. And Alice notices this immediately, too. She becomes suspicious - and acts on it.


One night Dan is conversing in a sex chat room with a doctor, a dermatologist, named Larry. Dan pretends he is a woman named Anna and sets up a meeting at the London Aquarium. Interestingly enough, this is one of Anna’s places where she goes to think, and Larry finds her there. They fall in love and marry.


But all is not well. The two couples over time go back and forth with each other and just when we think one of the characters is going to be kind, or the relationships settled, he or she persecutes the other with demands for truth about infidelity.


Closer is an intelligent film, but not a particularly enjoyable one. The acting is quite good but often the interaction of the characters is just plain tedious. One reviewer said the film is an exercise in nihilism - I agree. This isn't about the unity of bodies and souls, it is about bodies that cannot find their souls.


Perhaps the truth of the film, what we see and feel (the photography and skin metaphors are obvious devices; the aquarium fish/sharks and wolf - Dan's last name - are as well), is that a true, lasting relationship and marriage cannot be built on lies and lack of trust. No one can get closer to anyone with falsehood and immaturity in the way. Each of the characters is in desperate need for a connection to another human being, for intimacy. They want to get closer, but the closer they get, the more distant they become. The characters are convinced that sex is everything, never quite realizing that it cannot substitute for genuine intimacy. The willing sacrifice of self for thebenefit of another is not just a suggestion for love and lasting relationships, but an absolute necessity.


The tag line for the film is: If you believe in love at first sight, you’ll always be looking. (I think this summer’s Garden State used the same line in it.) The characters are in need of some serious maturity, instead they are seriously adolescent. They keep on looking, they don't forgive and 'closer' is unattainable. 


If this is funny, I missed the joke. It's actually kind of sad.