Friday, December 29, 2006



(I have been getting several emails about FARGO (1996) because it was just on TV ... I wrote this short essay for the City of Angels Film Festival in 2001 and I thought I would post it here. It's on the AFI top 100 films list.)


That was Mrs. Lundergaard on the floor in there

and I guess your accomplice in the wood chipper….

And three people dead in Brainerd.

And for what?

For a little bit of money.                                                                       

There’s more to life than a little money, you know.                                

Don’t you know that?

And here you are and it’s a beautiful day.

Well, I just don’t understand it. 

                                    - Sheriff Marge Gunderson




One day, the medieval “noble” poet Dante, guided by Virgil, the muse of human reason, set off on an allegorical journey to recognize sin, to renounce it and to reach the light of God by visiting hell, purgatory, and heaven. When they finally arrived at the pit of hell, Dante described it as a huge frozen lake, a bitterly cold, ice-covered place, guarded by giants.


So, too, do the Coen Brothers in their 1996 ironic icy road study of greed, lies, and murder. The evil deeds of FARGO parallel the sins of Dante’s Inferno with visceral accuracy.


The hellish Northern hemisphere of Dante’s spiritual world matches the snowscape between the Twin Cities and Fargo. In between lies Brainerd, home to Paul Bunyon, the mythic giant who stands guard over the grotesque spiral of blood sins perpetrated by Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) and his team of hired thugs, Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare.) Babe the Blue Ox, the beast, watches as back and again we drive across the dark, frozen tundra of highways, parking garages, car lots, fallow fields, bedrooms, dining rooms and hearts, trying to make sense out of a very, very bad situation.


“And for what? For a little bit of money.”


If we travel with Dante or Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances MacDormand) along the frozen brink of hell as the snowball of evil grows and gains the momentum of its consequences, we discover the reality of what goes on beneath the cover of snow and ice. Jerry’s attempt to commit a crime under the guise of normalcy and virtue is fraudulent and malicious. Worse yet, it is so utterly stupid.


According to Dante and the Coen Brothers, there are matching circles and ditches in hell for all likes of evildoers, especially dumb ones.


It’s too bad nobody told Jerry.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Best and Worst Films of 2006

Best and Worst Films of 2006 (of the 98 I saw...)


As usual, a flurry of promising films is being released before the end of the year so they can be considered for the Golden Globes Awards (January 15, 2007, NBC) and the Academy Awards (February 25, 2007): Miss Potter, The Good German, Dreamgirls, Children of Men, Perfume, Notes on a Scandal, the Painted Veil, Letters from Iwo Jima, etc. Volver, with Penelope Cruz, is getting a lot of buzz, but it’s not in wide release. Alas, I have not had the opportunity to see these films yet so I cannot include them on by best and worst film list of 2006. (I will add to this list as I see the films).


My basic criteria for judging films (as stated in my column in St. Anthony Messenger, 2006) are:


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

• How well the main character grows as a person and member of the human family;

• The promotion of the gospel values of human dignity, family and community, justice, peace and fair representation of cultures, races, genders, ages, religious faiths and spiritualities;

• The ability to entertain


Over 750 films were released commercially in 2006; I saw 98. (According to, 770 films will have been released by December 31.)


My Best Films List for 2007

(All of these deserve award consideration)


Babel (Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress Rinko Kikuchi)


Blood Diamond (Best Screenplay; Best Actor Leonardo di Caprio; Djimon Hounsou for Best Supporting Actor)


Catch a Fire (Best Actor Derek Luke)


The Departed (Best Director!! Martin Scorsese; Best Actor Leonardo di Caprio)


Dreamgirls (Saw it yesterday; it's moving, musical, and magic. Jennifer Hudson is remarkable; Eddie Murphy - who knew?)


The Good Shepherd (Best Film; Matt Damon for Best Actor)


An Inconvenient Truth (Best Documentary)


The Last King of Scotland (Forest Whittaker, Best Actor, and James McAvoy for Best Supporting Actor)


Little Miss Sunshine (Best Independent Film!)


Miss Potter *** (Best Cinematography, Screenplay, Actress)


The Nativity Story (Mike Rich for Best Screenplay  and Oscar Isaac as Best Actor)


Notes on a Scandal -The UK provides a triple threat this year with this film, the Queen, and Miss Potter. All films about women and all excel


The Queen (Helen Mirren for Best Actress and Stephen Frears for Direction)


Stranger than Fiction (Best Screenplay and Maggie Gyllenhaal for Best Supporting Actress)


Water (Best Foreign Film)


Honorable Mention


Yes, there are a lot of films on this list… and I am glad I got to see each one; the ones tagged with an ** deserve award consideration, whether Golden Globe, People’s Choice, a Gabriel, or an Oscar). I reviewed most of these films in St. Anthony Messenger ( this year, but was not able to keep up with my blog for a few months….


Akeelah and the Bee **


The Ant Bully**


The Beauty Academy of Kabul


Cars **


Catch a Fire **




Charlotte’s Web


Conversations with God – I want to comment on this film because of it goes to the heart of spirituality: one’s image of God. It’s non-denominational and tells the story of a man who made a journey from despair, hopelessness, and homelessness to a new life by struggling with his negative image of God. As he came to know God better and gained faith, he began to pray and to see life and eternity in a new light. It’s low budget and does drag on a bit, but it’s worth the watch.


Deliver Us from Evil **


The Devil’s Miner (very limited theatrical release and then on PBS)


The Devil Wears Prada ** (Media literacy people take note! this is a great lesson in the image industry)


End of the Spear/Beyond the Gates of Splendor


Flags of Our Fathers **


Glory Road






The Illusionist **(an Oscar for Paul Giamatti, please. He excelled in “Lady in the Water”, too… He’s brilliant)




Pursuit of Happiness **


The Road to Guantanamo **


Rocky Balboa


The Saint of 9/11 **


Superman Returns


Take the Lead


Thank You for Smoking **


Wordplay ** (Maybe not the best film of 2006, but so enjoyable for the pleasure of words and its … innocence.)


World Trade Center




The Worst Films of 2007


The Architect – A film with so much potential and then … it just fizzled.


Barnyard – for its faulty zoology, lack of humor and … laziness (e.g. the same old story about an orphan male yada yada yada that needs a witch to create ...what?  and so the we get the compulsory negative portrayal of the human female character, the farmer’s wife).


Borat: CulturalLearnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – Mostly the yuck factor and so much more


The Celestine Prophecy – A weird Catholic-flavored New Age thingy


The Da Vinci Code – Even considering its terrible theology, it was a film without a hero and the false New Age-y ending - not in the book but consistent, I guess, with the gnostic ethos of the film - was so … odd.


Freedomland – For passionate performances in a story without a plot


One Night with a King – For its troubling ideological subtext  (e.g. juxtaposition of the swastika and Star of David and speeches about democracy during the reign of King Xerxes – 485-465 BC - of Persia, i.e. current Iran)


Scoop – Disappointing lack of character development


You, Me, and Dupree – Such scuzz

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Good Shepherd Movie

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is recruited for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services; precursor to the CIA) while at Yale University. He had witnessed his father’s suicide, a U.S. senator, as a child and kept hidden the suicide note, without reading it, for years. He seems born to secrecy. As a student he was tapped for membership in the secret Skull and Bones Society at Yale (George H.W. Bush and John Kerry are said to be members), a group to which generations of family members belong(ed.)


Although in love with a deaf girl, Laura (Tammy Lanchard), he has a trist with Clover Russell (Angelina Jolie), the sister of a fellow Bonesman. She becomes pregnant and they marry just as World War II breaks out and Edward is asked to go to England. He stays away for several years and returns home when his son (Eddie Redmayne) is six years old. By this time, President Truman, sensing the Red threat, has asked General Bill Sullivan (based on the actual character, “Wild Bill” Donovan) to begin the CIA; one of his first recruits is Edward Wilson.



For as much as Jeffrey Lyons, the movie critic for the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, hates this movie, I was fascinated by it. For the first time in months I did not look at my watch during a (2:40 minute) movie. And I thought 2006 was a bad year for movies.


Matt Damon’s character seems to hardly change from beginning to end. For those of us trained by James Bond movies, Edward Wilson’s white-bread American life as a spy seems humdrum. But under his eye lids flicker his emotions, his thought processes, and his decisions.


Angelina Jolie is nothing less than brilliant in her role as the New England socialite who seems to want to love Edward, but is ultimately crushed when he shouts, in an unusual show of feeling, that the only reason he married her was because she was pregnant. She deserves awards consideration, as do Damon and Di Nero. In this role Jolie shows has the acting chops to be right up there with actresses like my mother's favorite actress, Bette Davis. Billy Crudup is excellent as the Kim Philby-like character (one of the British Cambridge Five double agents) as are William Hurt as head of the CIA and John Turturro as Edward's right hand man during WWII and after.



Robert Di Nero, who directs and plays Bill Sullivan, is really good on both counts. The film was probably shot in as non-linear a way as the narrative plays out, beginning with the U.S. failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 and ending when the reason for the failure, and ultimately Wilson’s failure as a husband, father, human being – but not as an American – is revealed. Eric Roth, who also wrote Forrest Gump and Munich, has created a compelling screenplay that once again visits the topic of patriotism  - this time as religion and family.


There are several meaningful quotes in the film (other than the ones now listed at; here they are as I recall them (feel free to correct them):


At the annual meeting of the Skull and Bones Society, Margaret (who used to be called Clover) says when the minister is introduced to lead the prayer: Bonesman first, God second.


Cannot recall who said this: Did you ever notice why “the” never precedes CIA? Does “the” precede God?


When Wilson visits mobster Joseph Palmi (Joe Pesci) about the Bay of Pigs invasion and threatens deportation unless Palmi helps the CIA, Palmi asks him: We have Italy and family, the Irish have their homeland, but you, what do you have? Wilson answers: We have America; the rest of you are just along for the ride.


The Good Shepherd is the best spy movie I have ever seen, and one of the best films of the year. Thoughtful viewers will find want to know more, and think again about what makes us members of the human family, the ethics of espionage.


Espionage (and consequences) has been around for a long time. Do the ends justify the means? is a question The Good Shepherd asks without ever voicing it. Is the United States of America more important than family? Margaret Wilson doesn’t think so.  Can the CIA make mistakes and use torture? The film says so. Does a spy have a heart? Can he? You decide.


Why is this film called The Good Shepherd? After all, Wilson’s code name with his Soviet counterparts was “Mother”. Without knowing the official reason, I think it’s because of Wilson’s God-complex, his conviction of American superiority, leads him to be willing to sacrifice the happiness of his only son, and to lay down his own life or his country should it be necessary. He knew his sheep, they knew parts of him, and he was willing todie more for his sheep, at least the Skull and Bones kind and what they represent(ed).


Much food for thought….



… check out the Bible: Joshua, 1-6 and here’s Numbers 13-14:


 God told Moses to send men to spy out the land of Canaan. He told him to send a man from each tribe. Twelve men were sent. They were to find out about the land and the people in the land. Moses said to find out if the people were strong or weak. Did they live in cities or in camps? He wanted to know what the fruit of the land was like, and if they had forests or not. He asked them to bring back some of the fruit that was ripe.


The men went into the land and found that it really was a good land. The grapes were so big that it took two men to carry a cluster of them on a pole between them. But the people there were very big and tall, and the spies were afraid of them. They were gone for 40 days.


When they returned to their own camp, they showed Moses the good fruit they had found in the land. Ten of the men began to tell about the giants and how fearful they were. They told of large cities with high walls around them. "We cannot go into this land," they said. "We were just like grasshoppers in our own sight, and also in the sight of the people there."


Two men; Caleb and Joshua said, "Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are able to overcome it."


The Israelites didn't want to go and take Canaan as God had wanted. God punished them by making them wander in the desert for 40 years. They had to wander around one year for every day the spies had been gone.


Of the twelve men, only Joshua and Caleb got to go into Canaan.


Night at the Museum

Larry Daly (Ben Stiller) is a divorced dad living in New York City struggling to make a living from his various get-rich schemes. His former wife Erica (Kim Raver) doesn’t want to continue letting their son, Nick (Jake Cherry) visit him until he shows more stability.


Larry takes a job as the night watchman at the museum. The three retiring watchmen played by Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs, show Larry the ropes, and on their way out leave him a set of instructions while Cobb copies the key to the museum.


On Larry’s first night the whole place comes to life and he wants to quit. The next night things get better. He makes friends with the T-Rex skeleton and Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams). Of course, the three old watchmen are up to something, and the way it is resolved makes Nick believe in his dad once again.



Based on the book by Milan Trenc, it took two screenwriters (Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) to interpret it (rehash?) and get it into a screenplay. I was prepped to like the film by a colleague in London who had been to two pre-release screenings, but … as much as I wanted to like it, I thought it dragged on – and just wasn’t funny enough. The whole T-Rex sequence was straight out of a McDonald’s Super Bowl commercial from a few years ago and I liked it much better. The father-son plot was predictable, too. I always like Dick Van Dyke, but Mickey Rooney’s clichéd name-spewing failed to be cute after the first one. Even the scene with the monkey and Stiller slapping one another – it was funnier in the previews.


Night at the Museum, directed by Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen), is just OK (but the special visual effects are pretty awesome.)


Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are on vacation in Morocco to heal the wounds of the death of a child. Two young brothers, trying to hit a target at 3km with the rifle their father bought to kill jackels, shoot at the tour bus and a bullet hits Susan. One of the guides directs the bus to his village where Richard scrambles for help. He calls his home in San Diego to make sure his two older children, under the care of the housekeeper and nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), are all right but they are about to go on their own journey to Mexico. The Moroccan police seek out the shooter by trying to trace the bullet. Richard is sure the U.S. embassy will help but there are difficulties and delays. The police in Tokyo visit the condo of a wealthy businessman and ask his teenaged daughter, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf-mute, to speak with him. Her mother committed suicide and she and her father do not communicate. It turns out that the high-powered rifle can be traced to him.


Babel is a complex puzzle and the events it portrays by its non-linear timeline, seem to take place almost simultaneously, not unlike director Alejando Gonzalez Iñárritu's 21 Grams (2003). He also directed Amores Perros (2001) – a film I have not yet seen (but I have the DVD and it is on my list).


The title “Babel”, of course, refers to the Genesis 11 when people tried to build a tower to the heavens, a sign of hubris that God countered by confusing their languages so the builders could not communicate.




There are so many threads to talk about in this fascinating film: the butterfly effect, family, life and death, guilt, guns, and empathy for starters, but I think communication, as it relates to the film’s title, is the ultimate theme of the movie. What begins as an act of generosity sets off a sequence of events with sad, tragic, and unintentional human consequences. There are breakdowns in communication, and breakthroughs.


The acting is superb as each character plays against another in an intentional pairing and cross-pairings of diverse relationships. Blanchett and Pitt's intense and intimate marital bond is shown to us in intense close-ups when he cares for her while awaiting help. We expect superb acting from Blanchett, but on the other side of the world, Rinko Kikuchi’s performance as the grieving and isolated daughter, living inside her head, breaks our hearts.



Babel is a gritty film that appeals to the intellect, engages the heart, and makes us reflect and perhaps take some kind of action about the centrality of communication (over guns); indeed the film makes us thirst for it for the characters as we experience the film and ponder the future of the human family beyond and within our own borders.


It would be very interesting to see Babel and the 2002 Chinese film Hero that looked at communication and the sword in an intensely beautiful and truthful way. The theme of the rifle in Babel may seem sub-textual, but as pivotal as the rock in the old "Rock Soup" tale, it has the subtle power to make us reflect about arms and what happens when they fall into the hands of even the innocent.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

We Are Marshall

As a plane filled with members of the Marshall University football team, boosters, family members, coaches, staff, and airline crew, was about to land at the airport serving Huntington, West Virginia on November 14, 1970, it crashed during a storm. 75 people lost their lives. The small town was devastated.


Dean Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) and some of the university’s board members want to close down the football program to honor those who died. But one student and team member, Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), rallies the students to keep it going.


Dedmon contacts all previous Marshall players who became coaches and offers them the job of coaching the new team. They all turn him down. Then Dedmon gets a letter from a coach in Ohio, Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey). He tells Dedmon that he cannot imagine what the university and town must be going through and offers to help. Lengyel then prods Dedmon to get permission for freshmen to play so that Marshall can have a lineup when the new season begins.



We Are Marshall seems at first to be another football movie (!) but it is more a journey through grief and for the few remaining players and an assistant coach (played by Matthew Fox; Lost), an experience of their struggle to overcome survivor’s guilt.  We are Marshall is the story of a team and a community that together got up and kept going, rising from the ashes, as does the mythical phoenix.


None of the actors (and you will recognize many) stand out in the film; it’s as if they became a team to tell this heartbreaking story of hope. If you remember the 70’s you will recall the plaid polyester fashions but McConaughey’s too long hair may not make you too nostalgic. Yet hip director McG (The OC; Charlie’s Angels and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), who was only about 2-years old when the events in the film took place, does a credible job of taking us back and making us feel what it must have been like that fateful night of November 14, 1970 and the months that followed. The film shows the power of empathy, is full of heart -- and there are lots of man-tears.


The film has a BK rating (bring Kleenex).

The Nativity Story Movie as seen from the Philippines

This review was posted on the (SIGNIS is the Vatican-approved international Catholic organization for communication) website today (December 21). "Stampita" = holy cards. The writer goes to the heart of this Christmas film. I love the familiar style the writer uses for her readers. R

"The Nativity Story" Seen from the Philippines

Manilla, November 25, 2006 (OCDS/Teresa R. Tunay) - The creative and realistic depiction of Mary and Joseph in The Nativity Story can teach the Church a thing or two about ‘packaging’ our Saints for public consumption in this day and age.

"By the creative and realistic depiction of Mary and Joseph, "The Nativity Story" offers inspiring models for us".

“Sana naman kumuha sila ng maganda-gandang Mary! Ang pangit naman ng bibig nito!” (They should have picked a more beautiful Mary! This one has such ugly lips!). “At saka hindi ba medyo me idad na si St. Joseph? Bakit ito, bata?” (And isn’t St. Joseph supposed to be old? Why is this one young?). That was overheard as the guests at the premier showing of The Nativity Story flowed out of the Greenbelt 3 cinema last November 24. Making the comments were two well-heeled elderly ladies.

Two weeks later, at a popular mall during the same movie’s regular run, a 30-something woman said to another as they emerged from the theater: “Okay ‘yung anghel na ‘yun ah-me balbas pero walang pakpak!” (That angel is cool-he has a beard but has no wings!).

This pretty much sums up the big difference in audience perception as far as images of supposedly holy ones go. The Nativity Story should also teach the Church a thing or two about “packaging” our Saints for public consumption in this day and age.

The movie blasts stereotypes - a fact that threatens the characters’ credibility among old school believers - but because the actors play their roles with such depth of characterization, they come across as more human, more real, more reachable. That means more “copyable”, and therefore more appealing to younger Catholics unwittingly searching for more down-to-earth role models.

We’ve been raised on stampita images of Mary: always in demure poses, head bowed down, hands clasped in prayer. We are accustomed to remembering Mary mostly as European artists portray her, in fine, gold-trimmed clothing, with tapering fingers and rosebud lips, gentle eyes untouched by sin, sometimes blonde, other times brunette, but never a hair out of place.

Enter 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, The Nativity Story ’s Mary: olive-skinned, with zits on her face, she unwraps her dark damp hair and wipes her sweat as she slumps beside a tree. She moves as any 14-year old Jewish girl from Nazareth does, pitting olives with her stubby fingers, going about her kitchen chores, even sitting on the earth with knees apart and a bowl of food between her thighs-so unladylike? Indeed, this Mary is rough clay, an earthen water jug, while the stampita virgin so dear to our imagination is a Lladro figurine-flawless, shiny, pastel-colored, dust-proof.

And the stampita Joseph? Of course, he matches the stampita Mary: meek and mild, soul of gentleness, chaste spouse, hands never soiled even when holding a carpenter’s tools. The movie’s Joseph, played by Oscar Isaac, is in the prime of youth, doesn’t hide his admiration of Mary from his friends, tends to throw down things when angered, bursting with so much energy you’d think twice before letting your 14-year old go out with him.

The angel Gabriel is the antithesis of angelic as we also know it from stampitas, classical art, cinema, assorted media, plus chi-chi gift shops in our malls. Wingless, semi Afro-hairstyled, bearded and bemoustached, his appearance in the sky is heralded by the wind rustling through the leaves. He descends on earth and hails Mary, but without his white gossamer robe, even the most open-minded movie goer would wonder, “Who’s this character”? Actor Anthony Siddig is the farthest thing you could ever imagine being cast as a messenger of God. Givehim an Uzi and he’ll look like a terrorist. Stick a cigarette in his mouth and he’ll pass for a durogista. And even if he were a real angel, he’d be more credibly cast as a fallen angel. Anyway, he looks like some character you wouldn’t want to sit next to on a bus.

And yet Mary believed this angel. That’s the whole point! The Nativity Story is all about faith!

We all know by heart the story of Jesus’ birth, but The Nativity Story takes us from the Christmas card prettiness we’re familiar with to the next level-faith, a belief in God that does not hinge on the externals. Mary looks every inch like an ordinary village girl who doesn’t deserve a second glance, but she shows extraordinary strength of character in accepting God’s will conveyed, literally, from out of the blue. Mary’s discerning ability and effective faith enables her to stand upright and immovable before the neighbors’ malicious eyes, and because of it, God comes down to live among men.

Any village boy would have killed to spare himself from becoming the greatest cuckold in history, but not Joseph. Upon Mary’s return from visiting Elizabeth, he gets the shock of his life seeing her bulging stomach. Never having touched Mary at all, the groom elect is troubled, and in his deepest darkest moments may have led the mob in stoning her to death, but he doesn’t. Instead, he shows remarkable self-control and righteousness in deciding to keep her. His goodness is justified when the same hirsute angel appears in his dream to substantiate Mary’s claim. Hence, he becomes Mary’s partner in welcoming the Immanuel into this world.

See-it wasn’t only Mary who said “yes” to God; Joseph did, too. By the creative and realistic depiction of Mary and Joseph, The Nativity Story has offered inspiring models for us, especially the young. Mary and Joseph were nameless faces like most of us, two nobodies in Nazareth from where it was believed nothing good could come, and yet, by their enduring witness to the Divine’s presence in their lives, they became virtual co-creators of God.

Might we not wish to be visited by angels who would sweep us off our doubts so our hearts would be God’s alone? In our prayers and novenas, after telling God of our needs and desires, can we stay a little longer to listen to Him speak of His desires forus?

Our Church - and indeed the world - needs more Marys and Josephs, persons with simple hearts who would put aside personal discomfort in order to follow the dictates of the Divine in their lives. Mary and Joseph obeyed God in spite of their neighbors’ judgment; thus, in time, Jesus became one of us.

We all want a better world, but are we willing to put God as Number One in our life for it? Are we willing to obey God at all cost? Our obedience is a small thank-you gift to offer to The One who has given us life. And that’s the truth.

Friday, December 15, 2006


A group of young Mayan men hunt a wild boar in the jungle and kill it. They rip out its organs and make one of the men eat the testicles of the beast. They are enjoying themselves when one of them, later to be called Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), senses movement in the trees. A short time later a young man from another tribe emerges from the foliage and asks for safe-passage for his villagers who are moving to a new location to begin a new life. It is about the year 1519 AD.


That night, as Jaguar Paw sleeps beside his pregnant wife and young son, he dreams of the young man; he looks as if he has been brutally beaten and yells at Jaguar Paw to flee. Jaguar Paw awakens and listens to the wind. Soon enough a different group of Mayan men attack the village. Jaguar Paw hides his wife and son in a dry well. When he returns to help the other villagers, he is captured with those who are not brained, raped, or slain.


The captives are bound together and led to a major Mayan urban center. The women are sold as slaves and the men are taken to the top of the temple to be sacrificed to appease the gods who have visited a plague on the corn crop. Jaguar Paw is saved when there is a solar eclipse. Nonetheless, the rest of the captives will be made sport of and killed.




The rest of the 138 minute film is consumed with the injured Jaguar Paw running through the jungle, chased by the father of a man Jaguar Paw killed as he fled.


Apocalypto means “new beginnings” as Mel Gibson has said in interviews about the film. The irony of this is that almost at the very end Jaguar Paw arrives at a beach, with two surviving pursuers, to see three Spanish ships, complete with landing vessel filled with conquistadores and a Franciscan friar holding a cross. Although this priest only acted as a chaplain to the soldiers, and the first twelve Franciscan missionaries would arrive about five years later in June, 1524, this distant meeting of the Spanish and the Mayans did signal a new beginning, the conquest of Mexico and neighboring areas and civilizations, the deaths of uncountable people, the theft of gold, slavery, etc. (It is estimated that the amount of gold taken from Peru underpinned the economy of Europe for 300 years.)


According to Eduardo Chavez, author of “Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Juan Diego: the Historical Evidence” (2006; Rowman and Littlefield), the Franciscan missionaries did destroy the Mayan temples and shrines in their paternalistic concern about the worship of idols, but the Spanish military and settlers were treating the people with cruelty. Things were so bad that in 1529 Friar Juan de Zumarraga (later to become the first bishop of Mexico) wrote to King Carlos of Spain that the Spanish were enslaving the Indigenous people to serve them on their new ranches, diverting water from the villages, and forcing the people to work in the mines. In 1532, Mary appeared to the Christian neophyte, Juan Diego. Unlike other areas conquered by the Spanish, Msgr. Chavez told a group of us who visited the Basilica of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in October, 2006, for the launch of a major motion picture celebrating the 475th anniversary of Mary’s apparitions to St. Juan Diego, that the Franciscans did not force conversions in Mexico (as was done by missionaries in league with Conquistadores in other parts of the lands conquored by Spain); the people were led to Christianity by the story of the miraculous image of Our Lady on Juan Diego’s tilma. (The film is now playing in many cities in the US: GUADALUPE, see; see my review below)


I mention this because it is difficult for me to take in the brutality and violence of Apocalypto and it’s seemingly “new day” message coinciding with the arrival of the Conquistadores.Or is this irony the tragic point?


I liked Rudy Youngblood very much; we can only hope that his recompense is commensurate for acting this demanding and grueling role.


The production qualities of the film are excellent, as we have come to expect from Mel Gibson – except that it seemed like they spliced in video in some places. The subtitles were not a problem for me at all, and helped create the historic context of the film. But there were also some conventions from Mel’s other violence-packed films with a central figure willing to give his life for others or save his family (Braveheart, The Patriot, The Passion of the Christ): the vicious revenge killings or over-kill, the horror elements (the eyeballs rolling back in people’s heads, the dwarf-baby taunting the captives, the insects, the cosmos out-of-sync with nature – and fear); and the blue body paint (which may be a cultural coincidence).


Going the distance is one of the themes of the Rocky Balboa film coming out soon.  Let there be no mistake about it: these films are about testosterone; in Rocky Balboa, however, the filmmakers blend it better with the characters and story. Jaguar Paw certainly did go the distance, with a strong, brave heart. The appeal to the male audience, therefore, for both films, is extra obvious but the first fifteen or so minutes of Apocalypto was a guy- joke fest.


My question is: how does the same film played out in different places and eras take us, as the human family, anywhere new or different? Are there different stories out there? How do these kinds of films make us care more about our neighbor, both near and far? The main characters may go the distance, and are heroic, but at what cost to the – audience? Apocalypto is another ring-side seat at an execution – many of them – by the good guys and the bad guys.


There is a transcendent level to Apocalypto; for example, when Jaguar Paws must cross a river and decides to jump into the falls instead, he comes out without any wounds; he is healed. There are other instances where a sense of a guiding providence is evident.


Yet for all its high level of film craft, and as much as I liked Jaguar Paw (and a few of the other characters such as Jaguar Paw’s infertile friend and his mother-in-law), I think Mel’s films cry out for the gift of subtlety. The audience knows how to read films; we get brutality and torture the first time; we don’t need protracted sequences to get the message. One head bouncing down the temple steps would have been enough. I would have asked for my money back if I were not a film reviewer and had to stay for the whole thing.


So, what’s next, Mel? Are you going to surprise us?


The Nativity Story Movie

The Nativity Story is now enterting it's third weekend in theaters. You are still on time, in most places, to see this lovely film about Mary (Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Anna, Joachim, the shepherds and magi) in the year leading up to and including Jesus' birth.

If you've been planning to see The Nativity Story but waiting for some reason, please do go this weekend so that box office numbers will grow and sustain the film through the New Year.

For all of us who love the idea of the Scriptures brought to life in the spirit of St. Ignatius who taught us that visualizing ourselves "there" in the Gospels would help our faith lives and out prayer, The Nativity Story will help us do this in a remarkable way.

The Tidings, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is running a weekly Advent guide for "households of faith". Here is the link for this week's guide:

Also, you can check in this blog by scrolling down for links to many articles and reviews of The Nativity Story.

My feature article about the film stars and what they had to say about the film can be accessed by this link:

The way the film industry works in by box office receipts. If a film does not sell enough tickets at a theater, the chances of a theater keeping the film lessen very quickly. I have noticed that here in Los Angeles, some theaters have already replaced The Nativity Story with others.

People I have spoken to say they want to wait until the kids are out of school, or they want to wait until Christmas, or until the whole family can go. The reality is, if we would like the film to be in theaters at Christmas, we need to see the film now or it simply might not be there when you want to go.

This is a film you can easily see twice! Every time I have seen it (seven so far because I have been to many screenings) I learn or see something new. To me it is a wonderful way to prepare for Advent.




Thursday, December 14, 2006

Pursuit of Happyness Movie

Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is an energetic salesman in San Francisco who works hard to support his son, Christopher (Jaden Smith) and the boy’s mother, Linda (Thandie Newton). Gardner invested all his money in a portable medical scanner scheme but now is unable to sell all the equipment. It takes all the money the couple can scrape together to keep their son in a day care center in Chinatown.



Discouraged, Linda moves out and an almost incredible series of events conspires to send Gardner and his son first to a welfare motel, then, at Gardner’s lowest point, to the smelly men’s room in a BART station to spend the night. After this, Will runs daily from his position as an (unpaid) apprentice at an investment firm to pick up Christopher in order to get in line at a homeless shelter; they don’t always make it.


Will Smith was nominated this morning for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, and he deserves it (so does his son, Jaden; this little apple fell very close to the tree!), though I have pinned my hopes on Leonardo DiCaprio and either role will do (in The Departed or Blood Diamond). 


The good thing about this film for viewers, who are concerned about social issues and the safety and care of their brothers and sisters, is that this is a visceral experience, this based-on-a-true story, that shows of how easy it is for someone, for families, to become homeless in America. It is more often not so much the fault of individuals as it is of a system that can frustrate every attempt to become solvent. True, Gardner gets caught for not paying old parking tickets and thus loses his apartment because he literally runs out of money, but this is small compared tothe broader systemic issues involved. 


This is a film about character, about perseverance, and fatherhood.



The challenging aspect of the film is that despite Will Smith’s charm (I have heard that he is next in line to take Tom Hanks’ place as the most trusted actor on the silver screen), is that as a film, the Pursuit of Happyness is an emotional downer. My head appreciates it, but I felt so much angst building up as the minutes ticked by, that I couldn’t wait for it to finish. I think the audience deserves more than a few sentences on the screen at the end telling us how Chris Gardner and his son fared after the time framed by the film ends. The brief moments of humor are perhaps realistic, but we are used to a little more emotional realism in the form of two or three minutes of “where they are now” from a film; this would not have detracted from the story, but truthfully enhanced it.


The physical landscape of the film is made up of the steep hills of San Francisco, hills that Gardner is always climbing; the metaphor for figuring out life is the Rubik Cube (that Will Smith really did learn how to solve in record time; however, it is a prop to set the era in which the film takes place rather than something that actually happened in Gardner’s life.) The intellectual landscape is, of course, the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the American dream.


The film is directed by Gabriele Muccino, an Italian. Why an international director rather than an American? According to one of the producers Muccino said it best: because only an outsider can really appreciate what the pursuit of the American dream looks like. I think this isa fascinating take on what could be a risky film.


Fatherhood is quite a theme this holiday season: The Nativity Story, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Rocky Balboa. I hope audiences will appreciate this and take in these films as a way to enrich our spiritual lives and care for others.

Charlotte's Web Movie

(This essay was written by me and Sr. Madonna Janet Kuhlman, FSP, one of our nuns who loves kidlit!)


1952 was a very good year for children’s literature.


In addition to The Borrowers (Mary Norton), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (C. S. Lewis), Secret of the Andes (Ann Nolan Clark; a book went on to receive the 1953 Newbery Medal), emerged E. B. White’s barnyard fantasy yarn, Charlotte’s Web, the best-selling children’s paperback of all time according to Publisher’s Weekly in 2002.


In 1973 Hanna-Barbera released an animated film version of Charlotte’s Web that quickly became a classic, and  Paramount Pictures with Walden Media is now releasing a “live-action” adaptation that is faithful to the book and delighted and inspired children and adults alike. 


In this new live-action adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur (voice of Dominic Scott Kay) is the runt of a litter of pigs and Fern (Dakota Fanning) saves him by promising her father (Kevin Anderson), and the little pig, that she will take care of him. When Wilbur gets to be too big for the house Fern takes him across the road to live in her uncle’s barn. The other animals see Wilbur as just another ordinary pig, with a pig’s ordinary destiny: Christmas dinner. But the spider Charlotte (voice of Julia Roberts), which lives just inside the barn door, sees that Wilbur is special, because he is who he is. To show her esteem for her new friend, she spins words in her web that describe how she sees Wilbur: “some pig!” “terrific”, “radiant”, and “humble.” And Wilbur’s respect for Charlotte helps the other animals to see her as a beautiful creation, rather than a creature to be feared.


Charlotte gives her life for her offspring and for Wilbur, to save him forever from becoming Christmas dinner.  The story teaches all of us, through its superior and entertaining automatronic characters, about dignity, friendship, what’s in a name, keeping our promises, and seeing and appreciating the miracle of ordinary life.



The most transcendent part of the film for me is when Mrs. Arable (Essie Davis) goes to visit the family doctor (Beau Bridges) because she is concerned with Fern’s obsession with Wilbur, the words in the web, etc. The doctor, even more than the clergyman in the film, testifies to the miracles that are all around us if we but look, and take the time to see them, a marriage, if you will, between science and faith.


There are all kinds of resources for educators and religious educators to download on the Walden website:


There is a wonderful section on Charlotte’s Web in the book Imagining Faith with Kids: Unearthing Seeds of the Gospel in Children’s Stories from Peter Rabbit to Harry Potter  by Mary Margaret Keaton (Pauline Books & Media, 2005). The author writes about saints associated with animals: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare of Assisi, Blessed Jordan of Saxony, St. Martin de Porres (who set up a pet hospital in Lima, Peru). St. Roch, and Blessed Julian of Norwich who “befriended a cat that she cuddled and prayed with daily.”


About Charlotte’s Web Keaton writes:


            The story “… carries a wonderful theme of respect for life. From the beginning, lives are defended. When Wilbur is to be slaughtered, Fern rushes to his rescue, calling his slaughter a terrible injustice (Chapter 1). Her father tells her that a weakling is in trouble, but Fern valiantly pleads for the runt’s life. Consider beginning a conversation this way: ‘Fern was brave to protect Wilbur, wasn’t she?’ or ‘It’s a good thing Wilbur had Fern looking out for hum, wasn’t it?’ Or you might create opportunities to talk about social justice: ‘Wow, Fern really stands up for what she believes in! That takes a lot of courage…’ This could lead to examples of other courageous acts in real life or other stories.”



Imagining Faith with Kids: Unearthing Seeds of the Gospel in Children’s Storiesfrom Peter Rabbit to Harry Potter is available from or from the Pauline Book & Media Center, 3908 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230 (or the Pauline Book & Media Center nearest you.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Rocky Balboa the Movie



Its thirty years since Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) first broke into the ring, and he’s hitting 60. His beloved wife Adrian has died and he visits the cemetery regularly. In fact, he keeps a folding chair stashed in the branches of the large tree nearby. He misses her very much even though he leads a busy life as a restaurateur in South Philly. His fans remain loyal. He and his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young; The Sopranos; Mickey Blue Eyes) continue their friendship.


Meanwhile his son, Rocky, Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia; Heroes), works in an office. He bears his father’s fame as a burden; he is embarrassed by his dad. Even his boss, who reprimands him for something, lets it slide when Rocky, Sr. arrives to see his son. Father and son are not close, a situation Rocky would like to change.


On the boxing scene, sportscasters begin to wonder what would happen if Rocky would come out of retirement and face some of the new talent, specifically Mason “the Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). They convince Rocky to face Dixon in a demonstration match to benefit a charity. He begins to train, while befriending a single mother and her son, who seems to be straying into trouble because he lacks a male mentor.


When I was invited to a screening of Rocky Balboa last October with some leaders of various Christian faith communities, even knowing that Sly was going to be present after for questions, I must admit that my expectations were not too high.


But what a very nice surprise the film – and Stallone – turned out to be.


Written and directed by Stallone (as were all the Rocky’s except V that was directed by John G. Avildsen), Rocky Balboa is about a mature and seasoned Rocky – and Stallone - three decades down the road. The plot is not overly complex and it is predictable. But watching it is like spending a comfortable Sunday afternoon with an old friend and catching up. The dialogue is dotted with gentle humor, and Rocky’s wisdom is accessible and available, not preached.


When Stallone spoke to us after the screening he was articulate, warm, serene, and energized. He was very open about the stabilizing influence of his wife and family, what he has learned from his early life, and how he wants to make a difference. He also spoke about reading and how much good he has found in books since he began taking the time to read.


Truth to tell, I cannot stand boxing. I don’t get it even though all kinds of people – mostly guys and one female boxer – have tried to explain to me the discipline and the strength it requires back when Cinderella Man (an exceptional film) came out. Rocky Balboa has only one boxing sequence, so for parents who are squeamish about letting their kids see boxing, it’s not too bad.


I am not sure how many young people will want to see an aging baby-boomer climb into the ring to face a much younger, powerful fighter played by a realtive newcomer, Tarver. Milo Ventimiglia's fame is steadily increasing due to his role on the hit and hip television show Heroes - one of my favorites - and before that on Gilmore Girls), so he is a draw for the younger crowd. But I think the boomer generation – like me – will enjoy the film very much.


The marketing company wants fathers and sons to use the film as a way to start a conversation, and this is very valid. To the spiritual folks among us, there are quite a few places where scripture references will come to mind (and if you’d like to check out any of these visit


Certainly, courage, integrity, faith, and going the distance are values for all time. This is also a film about grief, loss, and living the life that we have to the full. If you are a fan of Rocky’s, you won't want to miss Rocky Balboa.


(By the way, Rambo is coming back in 2008 in Rambo IV: Pearl of the Cobra, breaking in a new hero to take John Rambo's place.)


Monday, December 11, 2006

The Nativity Story Movie - More reviews


Here are some more links to reviews, reflections, and articles about The Nativity Story - the must-see film of the season.

Honolulu Catholic Herald

Christianity Today (scroll down; many links at the end)

Catholic News Service


Blood Diamond Movie

The Roots of Bling: Blood Diamond and Blood on a Stone


A diamond is a symbol, a promise of love. A diamond is the hardest mineral substance in the world and because of this quality it has industrial applications. Due to their exquisite visual qualities and how they disperse light, diamonds have been used as jewelry for at least 2,500 years, if not longer. Almost 50% of the world’s diamonds come from South and Central Africa. Diamonds are judged by the four “C’s”: carat, clarity, color, and cut. Diamonds are serious bling


A new film released on December 8th, Blood Diamond, asks where today’s commercial diamonds originate, that is, those sold in the jewelry stores and counters in the United States and other developed countries. Oscar-nominated Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator, Catch Me If You Can), in the role of his life, plays mercenary Danny Archer. During the height of Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991 – 2002), Archer is arrested and while in jail hears that a man in the next cell, Solomon Vandy, played by Djimon Hounsou (Amistad, Gladiator, and the upcoming Eragon), has found a large, pink diamond. Vandy was kidnapped from his village and made to work in the diamond fields by paramilitary forces until his escape and capture by the police. Archer is determined to get the diamond and promises Solomon, more or less sincerely, that he will help him find his family if he will lead Archer to the diamond that Solomon buried.



The two men start off but are on two very different quests. A journalist, Maddy Bowen, (Jennifer Connolly, A Beautiful Mind) is on her own odyssey; she’s heard about conflict diamonds and wants to find out how they are smuggled out of Sierra Leone to fund the civil war, and who is buying them. She asks Archer if he ever thinks of the people who are killed, raped, and maimed for diamonds, or the plight of child soldiers as he pursues his diamonds. He answers honestly that he does not. Though born in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), he just wants out of Africa and Solomon Vandy’s diamond is the way to do it. Archer helps Solomon find his family in a refugee camp, but his son has been kidnapped by the rebels and become a sniper through brainwashing and drugs. Archer, Vandy and Bowen’s journeys intertwine as the secrets about the consequences of conflict diamonds are revealed to each one, and the audience.


DiCaprio gives an intense, driven, flawless performance, complete with a regional accent. Both he and Hounsou deserve Oscar consideration because their compelling performances convince us that though fictionalized, Blood Diamond tells a true story.


Sierra Leonian documentarian Sorious Samura won numerous awards for his 1999 film about his country’s civil war, Cry Freetown. Directed by Insight News Television’s Ron McCullagh, the film’s astonishing and repelling footage of the violence, the plight of child soldiers, rape, and mutilation and other human rights violations perpetrated during that war are reflected now in Blood Diamond. There are 200,000 child soldiers today in Africa alone (a fact that reminded me of Luis Mandoki’s 2004 film about child soldiers in El Salvador during that country’s civil war, Innocent Voices.) Samura and McCullah’s most recent project, Blood on a Stone, was shown at a gathering sponsored by Artists for Amnesty and Global Witness last week in Santa Monica. The film focuses on the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme, a procedure that 47 countries have signed, to assure that conflict diamonds are not smuggled and sold to world markets thus continuing to fund wars.


“Africa needs trade, not aid,” explained McCullagh when describing Sierra Leone’s debt to the West (to corporations, governments and the World Bank) and how diamonds are not helping the development of African nations and Sierra Leone in particular. “Sierra Leone is the second most corrupt country in the world, the third poorest,” according to Samura, “and the second richest in natural resources. The West makes short-term deals with my country that will keep us in debt forever. We need long term planning and development. It is a little known fact, however, that the Chinese are now investing in Sierra Leone and building an infrastructure that will benefit their country.” 



Filmmaker Sorious Samura: Cry Freetown & Blood on a Stone


Blood on a Stone traces the diamonds to legitimate mining companies in the Kono region of Sierra Leone and show that living conditions are primitive, with no schools for the worker’s children, no electricity for their homes, and no hospitals. Like company-employed miners, illegitimate diamond miners, who may find a diamond every two-three years, have never heard of the Kimberly Process and have no idea of the eventual value of the diamonds for which they live and die – and they do die. The Kimberly Process is a start, but the lives of Sierrra Leone’s poor still receive no benefit from even the legitimate diamond industry. The filmmakers embark on a journey to show how easy it is to smuggle stones out of Sierra Leone, and once in New York, using rough, legitimate diamonds loaned to them, find that nine out of the ten merchants they approached were willing to buy the “illicit” diamonds. Conflict diamonds continue to fund unrest in the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and have the potential to fund not only new wars, but perpetrate human rights violations and stunt the development of African nations. According to Samura, “Diamonds, secrets and death” all go together.


McCullagh, originally fromthe United Kingdom, worked for the BBC4 Radio in Africa, and founded Insight News TV in order to report the news in the context in which it occurs. McCullagh told me that “The Catholic Church is eminently well placed to help Africa in these times, to make a difference.” Both Samura and McCullagh emphasized that the goal of their film is to show that the Kimberly Process is a start but has serious shortcomings that need to be remedied.


When speaking about the dangers he faces as a journalist in his country, Samura said, “We need freedom of the press.” Jennifer Connolly’s role in Blood Diamond highlights this need for African nations.


When I asked Sorious Samura why the faith community should care about the consequences of conflict diamonds he said, “I’d want to say that diamonds are not forever; what we need to do is to help people understand and ask questions about where diamonds come from. We live in a global village and if we call ourselves God’s children we should be able to look after, and out for, our neighbor.”


Amnesty International suggests that consumers ask four questions: 1) How can I be sure that none of your jewelry contains conflict diamonds? 2) Do you know where the diamonds you sell come from? 3) May I see a copy of your store’s policy on conflict diamonds; 4) May I see a written guarantee from your suppliers that the diamonds are conflict free? Writing letters to legislators and jewelry companies is very powerful as well, an Amnesty spokesperson said.


Warner Brothers produced Blood Diamond and hired Sorious Samura as a consultant. Director Edward Zwick (Shakespeare in Love, Traffic) said that "Sorious was a Godsend… He was a friend, a consultant, an authority. He was the soul of the production." Samura’s documentary, Blood on a Stone, will be included on the DVD of Blood Diamond when it is released in 2007.


Amazing Grace, directed by Michael Apted, is due out in early 2007. It is about the life of William Wilberforce whose efforts led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1807. Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, was founded by the British for freed slaves and today buildings and streets there still bear Wilberforce’s name. It will be important to study the contemporary economic and human rights consequences of slavery and abolition on Africa and Sierra Leone in particular, as the 200th anniversary of this event draws near. The release of Blood Diamond is fortuitous.


For more information on conflict diamonds and child soldiers, visit,,,