Saturday, January 28, 2006

Fields of Mudan

A young Chinese girl named Mudan (Nicole Nishimoto) dreams of going to America with her mother. Her fantasies take her to a beautiful field and she is running with her mother toward a large farm house is the distance. She imagines the U.S. flag as a beacon of hope. 


Then her sleep is interrupted by the bouncing of the truck in which she is riding. It stops and the door opens. The dim light shows the child to be about eight or nine. She carries a picture she has drawn of her with her mother; it is what she dreams. A woman, in traditional Chinese dress, Madam Zhao (Yaping), beckons her out of the truck, takes her by the hand, and leads her to a dwelling. It is night. The little one joins other young girls asleep on mats. 


Mudan does not know where she is. The woman comes again and demands that the girls wake and dress because they have customers…


This harrowing short subject film was written and directed in 2004 by Stevo Chang, a graduate student of the Film School at Florida State University, Tallahassee. It is a story about human trafficking and the sex trade and is a 2006 Academy Awards qualifier in the category of narrative short film.


“This film raises disturbing questions,” said Sister Mary Geninio, Justice Coordinator for the Western Province of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. “Did Mudan’s mother sell her or was she kidnapped? Where is this kind of thing happening? Is it going on in the United States? It is estimated that almost one million people are trafficked globally each year for purposes of forced labor, domestic slavery, coerced prostitution, and sexual servitude; most of these victims are women and children. Between
20,000 -50,000 persons are trafficked to the United States each year as well.”


The television news magazine Dateline went undercover in Cambodia in 2004 to investigate this form of modern day slavery and episodes of Law & Order have featured this alarming story. Unlike Lifetime’s worthy and explicitly intense miniseries Human Trafficking that aired in 2005 (with Mira Sorvino, Donald Sutherland and Robert Carlysle), The Fields of Mudan invites us to accompany this young girl for twenty minutes and allows our imaginations fill in the details. The miniseries presented a reality in a visceral way, almost too ugly and terrible to believe; The Fields of Mudan suggests it so that we are able to feel the heartbreak of ruined lives up close and personal.


Amnesty International ( through its Artists for Amnesty program in Los Angeles and Pax Christi ( are involved in efforts to halt this nightmare. The Fields of Mudan is appropriate for high school students and for classes and groups studying social justice themes.

Pope Benedict XVI told the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See in early January this year that the world cannot “overlook the scourge of human trafficking, which remains a disgrace in our time.” On January 10, 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (the original act was signed into law in 2000) to combat human trafficking within the United States.


A government web site reported on January 11, 2006 that the "U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reports it has made 5,400 arrests and obtained 2,300 convictions in cases of human trafficking and smuggling since 2003." (



In 2004 the United Nations estimated that human trafficking was a $9.5 billion dollar industry.


Dr. Janice Shaw Course of Concerned Women for America outlined three things that must happen to stop trafficking in the sex trade: 1) Stop the supply through awarenss campaigns; 2) Find and prosecute the traffickers; 3) End the demand for prostitutes.


According to Genino who works with a group of women religious from various congregations working to stop this crime against humanity, “The Fields of Mudan captures quite poignantly the experience of the abyss between hope and despair.”


“Human trafficking”, she concluded, “is the tragedy of the 21st century.”

For more on the film, visit:


Friday, January 27, 2006

Nanny McPhee

Cedric Brown (Colin Firth) is a widower with seven children somewhere in late 18th century England. By trade he is an undertaker who needs financial help from his wife’s great aunt Matilda (Angela Lansbury) to keep up the household. To continue receiving this support Matilda tells him he must marry within a month.

The children, led by the eldest, Simon (Thomas Sangster) are hellions. To get their father’s attention they torment every nanny he hires. They have just got rid of the 16th or 17th when Cedric finds out that there are no more nannies to be had. As he converses with his deceased wife’s empty pink chair, he hears a voice: you need Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson). She appears and moves in just in time to catch the kids tearing the kitchen apart – a place they are forbidden to go. The cook, Mrs. Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton), has Mr. Brown’s promise they will not enter the kitchen. But Brown is powerless to do almost anything. The illiterate scullery maid, Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), feels sorry for him.

Nanny McPhee has warts, a prominent front tooth, and the children think she’s a witch. But when she raps her stick on the floor, the kids clean up the kitchen in record time and she marches them to bed.

Nanny tells them she has five lessons to teach them and when they don’t want her but need her she will be there; when they want her but don’t need her, she will be gone. Every time the children learn a lesson, something inexplicably magical happens, but I can’t tell you what – you have to see the film for yourself.

Besides acting in the lead role, Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay, based on the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand (I am not familiar with these.)  At first I thought this was going to be a Mary Poppins story, then I thought of the Sound of Music, then Cheaper by the Dozen and Yours, and Mine and Ours. I am not sure why these “family movies” must have food fights in them, but the kids in the audience seem to relish them. Of course, there are some Cinderella/fairy godmother elements as well.

The two undertaker assistants played by Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow didn’t quite work for me, and sometimes I got the impression the story was rather pasted together, albeit with polyester colors and much whimsy. It was good to see Angela Lansbury in a film again. Imelda Staunton as the cook is very good.

Nanny McPhee reminded me of the story books my mother had from her childhood, those morality tales that educators dislike so much – at first. If you get up on the wrong side of the bed, bad things will happen to you because you are so grumpy. But Nanny teaches the children about consequences with care and sensitivity and everything turns out all right – but you knew that, didn’t you?

When I left the screening I rode in the elevator to the garage with two young boys ( 8 or 9 years old) and their parents. The kids were chatting and trying to remember all the five lessons. The mom looked at me as if to say, “Go figure; they liked it!”

Sounds like a good endorsement to me, Nanny McPhee~

And about that magical thing that happens when the kids learn a lesson - try to figure out the connection between the lesson and the magic...

Friday, January 20, 2006

End of the Spear and Beyond the Gates of Splendor

In the 1950’s five young Christian men decided to go to Ecuador as missionaries. By 1956, all five were there with their wives. One, Nate Saint (Chad Allen), had an older sister, Rachel (Sarah Kathryn Bakker), who had helped raise him, and was already working there as a missionary.


In 1948 the Shell Oil Company had begun to drill for oil on the land of the Waodani, an indigenous tribe different from all others. They were so fierce that the company withdrew. A few years before that, in 1945, three young girls had fled from the Wao tribe led by Dayumae (Christina Souza); she would prove essential to the events to come.


By late 1955 the missionaries, especially Nate Saint who flew the plane that delivered supplies to missionaries scattered throughout the region, wanted to make contact with the illusive tribe because the government was threatening to attack them. The Waodani tribe was different from almost every other existing indigenous tribe in the world according to anthropologists; they had no sense of morality toward the community but were at once egalitarian and each man autonomous, that is, a law unto himself. The males would spear and kill anyone who got in his way, including one another. The people were killing themselves into extinction, homicide killing off six out of every ten people. 


The missionaries wanted to do something so that the people would not be exterminated and the only way was to make friendly contact.


Nate made eye contact with a male member of the tribe as he flew over their territory one day in January 1956. He noted the place and returned with another missionary and dangled a canvas bag to the group; the second time they dropped a chicken and a toy and oneof the tribesmanput a parrot into the sack for the men in the plane. Nate interpreted this as a good sign of friendly contact.


Although the women wanted to make the first personal contact thinking that the tribe would not attack them or their children, Nate and four companions decided they were more suited to the task. They decided to take guns for protection - to shoot into the air to scare the Waodani off. They were ready to give their lives but never to kill another human being.


They landed the plane on a sandbar. At first things went well when the people came to investigate, but very shortly, the internal relations of the tribe would cause the deaths of the visitors. A young woman was being courted by a man who had already killed one wife and had another; when they returned from visiting the missionaries along the river without their chaperone, they said the visitors had threatened to kill them so they ran. Their lie provoked the men, led by Mincayani (Louie Leonardo). When the missionaries failed to make radio contact, a rescue mission was launched. The men were buried on the site of their martyrdom.


What is so remarkable about this film is what happened in the days, weeks, months, years, and decades that followed. The women went to the village; at first two went, one with her daughter. Their message was simple: God had left signs, like marks on a tree, for them to follow to get to the other side of the Boa, or death. And the only way to get there was to stop the killing. The other wives followed. Helped by Dayumae, the message began to sink in. Through the ravages of a polio epidemic and Mincayani’s endless hostility, the wives, Rachel, and the children, persevered in living forgiveness. 


The End of the Spear telescopes the events, but tells the storywith economy and without evangelism of the audience. The serene dedication of the young men and their wives unfolds with beautiful cinematography, courage, and yes, loss, and pathos.


Beyond the Gates of Splendor (released in 2005 and available from recounts the story through the photos, 8mm footage, and voices of the wives and relatives, especially Steve Saint, the son of Nate. There is also information on the historical events and input from an anthropologist. The story is told with much generosity of spirit – the kind that only forgiveness and reconciliation can generate. Elisabeth Elliott, the wife of missionary Jim Elliott, wrote a book by the same title in 1995.


Steve Saint published End of the Spear in 1995. Jim Hanon wrote and directed the documentary; he also directed End of the Spear and co-wrote the script with Bill Ewing and Bart Gavigan. These are the first credits for all these men and they acquit themselves very well. The acting, for the most part, was excellent. Chase Ellison as the young Steve Saint was spot-on and the audience responds to him emotionally as a child and then as an adult, played by Chad Allen (Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman). The only somewhat weak performances came from the women, even though this was their story to tell.


The web site for the film offers a time line that is helpful in understanding the “journey” that the Waodani and the outside world had to make: Today the Wao people control their own land, negotiated drilling rights with Shell, and though they at first declined to have the End of the Spear made on their land, when they were told the story of Columbine, they agreed, since that was how they used to be; they wanted now to help others live in peace.


I recommend this film especially for how it approaches evangelization and telling the story of Jesus in the language of the people – not just the words, but the concepts that they can enter into, reflect upon, and accept or reject. I recommend this story for the boundless forgiveness and love that continues to this day. I recommend this film for its themes of social justice, globalization, and development of peoples.


Mincayani’s story is riveting; be sure to stay through the credits for the real finale.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Glory Road

Get ready for an amazing film about the 1960’s, when race and basketball kissed, and a new era in American athletics began. 


Most of this review is based on the interviews at the press junket for the film last Sunday here in Los Angeles. First seeing this really good film and then attending an awesome afternoon of interviews really made for a memorable few days. The cast, filmmakers, and writers are serious about their work, their art – and about the stories they choose to be part of the telling. I hope you’ll enjoy this review as much as I did writing it.


In 1965 a small-town Texas basketball coach for a girl’s high school team was hired to coach men’s Division 1 Basketball for a small west Texas college in El Paso, Texas Western College (renamed the University of Texas at El Paso in 1967). The school had so little funding that the coach, Don Haskins (Josh Lucas), and his family had to live in the men’s dorm. 


Haskins, a former collegiate basketball player, needed to put a team together, but again without much of a budget. That year, Texas Western didn’t have an African American player. So that, taken with almost no money, led Haskins to recruit from the inner city courts where kids could really play ball but had little chance at getting a college education. He or his assistant, Moe (Evan Jones) visited Detroit, the South Bronx, and Gary, Indiana and managed to recruit seven African Americans. He had to win over the mothers most of all – and he did.


The dean was suspicious that its boosters would not continue their support of the college, yet in the end they did. Haskins worked the new team members that included Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke), Harry Flournoy (Mehcad Brooks, Desperate Housewives), and Nevil Shed (Al Shearer), David Lattin (Schin A.S. Kerr) and others. Among the Anglo players was Jerry Armstrong (Austin Nichols), who played defense and was responsible for many of the teams amazing wins that year 27-1.


The West Texas Miners made it to the NCAA Championships in 1966, playing against the University of Kentucky Wildcats, also at 27-1. At almost the last minute, Haskins decided to start with five African American players, and chose the other two as back up. He wanted to win. And they did.


Glory Road could have been your typical feel-good sports movie. You know the kind that are based on a true story and are a metaphor for life; the kind with a B.K. rating (bring Kleenex) that we love and have seen over and over, like Rudy and Hoosiers.  And though Glory Road is ultimately about the triumph of the human spirit on the court and off, it’s different. It’s a slice of American history during the Civil Rights era when basketball was king, but peaceful integration a far off dream.


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Josh Lucas as Coach Haskins with Derek Luke as Bobby Joe Hill



At the press junket last weekend, prodigious producer Jerry Bruckheimer (see for all his credits) told those of us from faith-based publications and online journals that there was even more to the story than made it into the film. Don Haskins played high school basketball with his best friend, an African American, when they were growing up in Oklahoma. Haskins was recruited to play college ball, but not his friend who was the better player; Haskins never forgot that he got a college education, but his friend did not. When asked why he chose to produce this film, Bruckheimer said that he likes stories about characters with depth, great themes and an involved plot. Then he added, “As filmmakers we are in the transportation business; we’re here to give you a great ride.” Bruckheimer also said that he believes that athletics and music have done more for civil rights in this country than any march ever did.


John Voight plays Adolf Rupp the legendary coach of the Wildcats of the University of Kentucky. (One of the journalists, from Ave Maria Radio in Detroit, asked the first question – about what Voight felt like playing Pope John Paul II. I wish I had had a video camera. Obviously Voight, who was raised Catholic, was very moved by filming in Krakow, Poland, and meeting  and having tea with Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz who had been John Paul II’s secretary and assistant for almost forty years). I think the Ave Maria guy earned himself a promotion for the seven or so minutes he got from Voight about playing the Pope for the CBS special. Voight was inspiring to watch and listen to as he recalled the experience.) Voight does a tremendous amount of research about the roles he plays. He said that Rupp was always open to learning; he was born poor and came up the hard way and he did not believe in spoiling his players.


I know from a friend who lives in Lexington, KY and from one of the journalists also from Lexington, that people there are worried that Rupp will be portrayed as a racist. This is not so. Voight studied television footage of Rupp and read his speeches from where the brief dialogue he utters in the film is taken. The writers told us that they discovered nothing in their research that pointed to Rupp as a racist. But he didn’t have much respect for the upstart Haskins and his team and dissed him at the press conference before the championship game.  In the film Rupp’s wife Esther (Catherine McGoohan) befriends Mary Haskins (Emily Deschanel; Bones) at a party where she was being badly snubbed -  and this actually happened as well.


Mehcad Brooks who plays Harry Flournoy (and Alfre Woodard’s son on Desperate Housewives), and Al Shearer who plays Nevil Shed, were both at the junket, and they were a treat. Brooks comes from Texas and he said that the story of the West Texas Miners was a bedtime story for him growing up. He said that they all had to go to a two-week basketball training camp to get ready for the film and it was like a descent into hell. The real Don Haskins even came one day, Shearer told us, learned which characters they were playing, and then coached them for two hours – calling them by the names of their characters. Brooks said playing the part made him realize what it was like in the 1960’s when other ball players did not “reciprocate your existence.”


All the team actors actually played ball in the film; they were either actors who could play or players who could act. 


So the question is: how much of the story is true? The writers, Chris Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, both from the greater El Paso area who grew up hearing the story of Coach Haskins and the year the Miners and wanted to tell it. There are two scenes in the film where the team is viciously treated because of the black players. Did this really happen? “We had from 50-100 racial incidents to work from,” Bettina Gilois told us. “Each player had thingsdone to him, so we had to find a way to show the truth of what happened in a two-hour movie. We decided to condense all the incidents into these two. So no, these exact incidents didn’t happen, but others, some very serious, actually did. Plus there were the death threats and hate mail…” 


First time feature director, James Gartner, and the writers, assured us that 80% of the film is factual, but it’s all true. The film has a deliberately gritty look to it, unlike the classic Hoosiers or even Bruckheimer’s earlier Remember the Titans. Gartner chose to make this film because of the powerful story, although Bruckheimer has offered him other films before. After seeing the film, Haskins called him and told him how pleased he was with how the film turned out, at how accurate it is.


The question remains: why did Haskins play all his African American team members that day? Was it a basketball decision or a political statement? Josh Lucas, who plays Haskins in the film, said it was probably both, plus Haskin’s remembered anger at how his best friend was not given a chance to play college ball, or get a college education. “Haskins was a complex character; he was charismatic but he also had rage. I think he’s more complex and difficult than Bobby Knight.” By not playing Armstrong Haskins showed what he was willing to risk – and believe in – to win.


Josh Lucas told us something no one else mentioned: within thee weeks of the Miners winning the NCAA Championship, 100% of all the colleges and universities in the country who had basketball programs began recruiting African American players. I was a teenager in 1965. Between the escalation of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, I don’t remember much else that made news – and certainly not about basketball and the Movement. I met Lucas on the elevator on the way down after the interviews ended and asked him again if this information was accurate, and he assured me that it was. 


The story of the Miners' victory that day so long ago has waited too long to be told.


This is a film about a time in American history that young people need to know about. Someone told us that after one of the screenings in El Paso a mother wrote to say thank you because her ten year old son could not believe that black people were treated that way and the film had given her a chance to sit down and talk to him about racism and its effects on people and society. To me, this is one of the gifts that cinema provides for us: a "space" to talk about things that matter.


The film plays humor, heart, grit, courage, perseverance, determination, and self-sacrifice against racism very well; I got a little teary a few times. But it is not manipulative like most feel-good movies are; in fact, this is not a pretty film – don’t forget that. It is a true story about real people with basketball as the backdrop, and it will inspire you. 


Some of the funny incidents, like when the coach called David Lattin’s mom to come and get him to study, actually happened; also, the player (and it may have been Lattin, I cannot recall) started fainting; they discovered he had an enlarged heart. The coach didn’t want him to play, but his mother came and interceded for him. In actual fact, he also had two small strokes that same year but they decided to leave that detail out of the film. Too much story to tell and none of the usual clichés here.


Glory Road is on Bruckheimer’s super highway and it’s a great ride.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Last Holiday

Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) lives, works, and worships in New Orleans (pre-Katrina). Her job at a large department store in the cookware department gives her a bird’s eye view to the floor below where Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) sells things like barbeque units and backyard furniture. She’s sweet on him but doesn’t tell a soul. At home she watches cooking shows, eats like a bird, and keeps a scrap book of all the places she wants to visit to try the local cuisine. Her young neighbor sneaks a peak though, and sees a cut and paste photo that Georgia has made with her and Sean. Georgia sings in the church choir and the pastor announces that Senator Dillings (Giancarlo Esposito) is coming to visit but he does not show up.


Georgia is very kind and gentle, but doesn’t much like her boss. He is only interested in profits because the store may have to close. There is an accidental altercation at work and Georgia is injured. Dr. Gupta (Ranjit Chowdhry) gives Georgiaa CT scan and is shocked at the results. Even a second opinion comes to the same conclusion: she has a brain disease and only a short time to live. Georgia is stunned because she feels ok (especially after a fat-flush). She quits her job, liquidates all her assets, and decides to use her last weeks doing what she has always dreamed of: without telling anyone tshe goes to Europe to meet a famous chef (Gerard Depardieu) and taste the best cuisine he has to offer. 


Georgia is a mystery to the group of Americans who watch her enter the resort dining room like a queen; they are mad to know who she is. As she finds out in this wonderful comedy, the group is made up of the no-show Louisiana senator, and the owner of the department store chain she worked for, Mr. Kregen, who is accompanied by his young lady-friend who is not his wife.


Last Holiday is a post-holiday treat directed by Wayne Wang (Smoke; Because of Winn-Dixie) with just the right touch. Queen Latifah is elegant and funny; she and Gerard Depardieu play off of one another very well, even though they only share a few brief scenes. Because Georgia has the best suite in the Prague resort, she has a maid to attend her who seems to have been trained by the Gestapo; their interaction provides much of the humor. Also the unmasking of the department store owner, Mr. Kragen, played with classy sleaze by Timothy Hutton, is great fun. His lady friend learns a valuable life lesson from Georgia as well.


Oh, did I mention about LL Cool J? He and Queen Latifah looked very well together!


At the screening I sat between Sister Mary Lea whom I brought as a guest and a film reviewer from one of the New York papers. I felt like I was in an airplane because their continual laughter kept shaking the seats.


I wondered what people in or from New Orleans might think of the film, and by the end I was convinced that they would like it very much. It is a film about integrity, public service, inner elegance, and rebuilding one’s life.


It’s seems like an original story (though actually based on a film written by J.B. Priestly of the same title starring Alec Guinness as George Bird) because it hasn’t been neutralized by slapstick, clichés, and stereotypes of African Americans.


Go and see Last Holiday. Get this Byrd's eye view on how to spend what may be her last days with beauty and dignity - and lots of laughs. Refreshing. As we left the theater, everyone was smiling. You couldn't help it.


Be sure to stay for the credits; they're a treat~

Saturday, January 7, 2006

What I'm Watching on TV

January, 2006


As you know, I am a media literacy education specialist and the film/TV columnist for St. Anthony Messenger (


To me it is very important to be tuned in to the shows a significant number of people are watching. Sometimes I review shows because they are new; at other times, because they are significant; and at other times because I just like them.


My favorite ads right now: California Cows are happy so they make good cheese (well, you know what I mean; I also watch ADM ads – interesting how they think they are running the world, that they have the answers for things to come…)


So here’s what I am watching right now:


One * means I really like the show and if it’s on too late, I TiVo it and watch it later; screen it for clips I can use in media literacy workshops along with the ads.


Two ** means I like the show butI don’t watch it consistently; I wait for the reruns if it’s on at the same time as another show I’d rather record.


Top Five - Even if I miss all the rest, I try to see these on a consistent basis.


I watch Jeopardy whenever I can and always American Idol with some of the other sisters just for fun; but I don’t TiVo either of these and if I miss them, I miss them. Don't care for reality shows except sometimes I watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.



Meet the Press* (top five)

60 Minutes**

Cold Case **

The West Wing* (Must find out who will be the next President; the show dipped and has picked up again; I do like it.)

Desperate Housewives* (top five)

Grey’s Anatomy* (top five)<o:p>

Crossing Jordan**



Seventh Heaven**

CSI Miami**

Medium* (though I hope people don't get confused and actually go and consult a medium which is contrary to the first commandment, this is good television; well written, riveting stories)




Gilmore Girls**

Commander in Chief* (top five) (I like the idea of how a woman sees the world and handles conflict)

Surface** (Ah, now we are creating our own aliens to be afraid of; but original)

House** (Did not care for it at first, but there have been some very good shows about this really flawed person)

Bones** (I like the books on which the show is based; don’t see it very often)

Law & Order SVU**

Veronica Mars* (Nancy Drew film-noir for high school; smart; not a perfect teen show, but they aren’t watching it anyway; the big demographic: guys, 18 -35. Check out the ads that run with this show… )



Criminal Minds** (Mandy Patinkin is one of my favorite actors and he's always quoting a philosopher, poet, writer... Interesting)

Lost** (If you wait, they'll re-run and re-cap everything; but good)

E-Ring** (I don’t like the self-righteous premise of the show but I watch it because of this)

Law & Order**

Invasion** (More things to be afraid of!!)

Everybody Hates Chris** (I hear you Chris; I’ve been there; the put-upon eldest sibling…)




Without a Trace* (my number 1 show for three years now; as a friend of mine once told me: this is a show with a consistent Good Shepherd theme)



Numb3ers* This is in 6th place... Though I don't like math, I find the show fascinating and ... intelligent as the universe.

Close to Home** (Prosecutor Barbie is turning out to be rather good…)

In Justice* (If this can continue and get better, it may move to the top part of my list; we have so many shows that put people IN JAIL; ah, now one that gets them out. How’s that for refreshing – also a fine social justice element working here…)

Book of Daniel - ? Well, we will just have to see what the writers do with it.





Other shows I have watched and liked, TNT’s The Closer, Dancing with the Stars. I found F/X Nip/Tuc and Rescue Me  to be excellent television with very Christian themes, though rather raw at times; they have conscience. In case you are wondering if I watch sports; sure. The Olympics whenever they are on, ice skating and tennis when I have time. I also think the Antique Roadshow, PBS, is always, always interesting. The Shield and Prison Break: I tried, but too tense for me. Bernie Mac, George Lopez, Faith & Hope (border line) are pretty good, too, but only catch them once in awhile. Comedies are difficult though; they can be really funny but skuzzy, e.g. Two and a Half Men. I like Scrubs, but this season didn’t start off too well. My Name is Earl: there is so much you can say about this show; I don’t watch it consistently, but it has a lot of heart to go along with the white trash couture. Don’t like the OC even though everybody watches it; tedious. What happened to Everwood?

Book of Daniel (TV)

Friday's, NBC, 9/8pm


Aidan Quinn plays Father Daniel Webster, an Episcopalian priest, pastor of a New England parish who is partial to Vicodin, husband to Judith (Susannah Thompson) who is rather unhinged, father to Peter (Christian Campbell) who is gay and out of the closet but who does not want to lead the parade, Adam (Ivan Owen), of Chinese ancestry that the Webster’s adopted and who is very horny, and Grace (Alison Pill; wonderful in Pieces of April) who was just busted and bailed out of jail for selling marijuana. Daniel’s own father is a bishop; his wife has Alzheimer’s so he’s having an affair with the female bishop played by Ellen Burstyn. Then, Daniel’s sister-in-law’s husband Charlie (we don’t get to see him) has run off with three million dollars from the school building fund so Daniel goes to see Father Frank, a Catholic priest with ties to the mob, to find Charlie and get the money back. OK, not the mob, just construction companies. At first, Charlie’s wife thought he had run off with the secretary; but no, he’s dead. So the young lady secretary moves in with Charlie's wife for a while (yes, moves in), but that doesn’t last long. And let’s not forget Jesus, who is no longer “the good old plastic Jesus” (title of a book by Earnest Larsen, 1968) sitting on the bookshelf and looking down on the kids at night, but the real thing, who gently persists in nagging Daniel about his Vicodin dependency, those little headache pills he gets from Canada and is now sharing with the lady bishop.


A friend of mine said that maybe the title of the show should be “Desperate Clergy”. To me, it seemed like all of Wisteria Lane had moved into Webster’s rectory. Maybe the writers (all four of them) took their inspiration for the show from Stephen Vincent Benet’s (1898-1943) “The Devil and Daniel Webster” ( you can read that story here:; if so, the writers had better hurry and make “The Book of Daniel” as clever.


There is a problem with this show, and it’s not what the American Family Association has been decrying ever since they saw the commercials for it (they started their "anti" campaign before ever seeing it; how to lose credibility in one easy step is to start a knee-jerk reaction before you even see the thing. Anyway.) The show isn’t even a little bit funny and the drama was not believable.


The only character I liked was Daniel himself (sorry Jesus) but that’s because I like Aidan Quinn. There was no dramatic arc in the episode: it was like a linear shopping list of dysfunctions (all of which are possible) escalating in the poor rectory to the boiling point. But there was no boiling point. Everything’s ok, except the missing money, so what is the point?


Theologically, it is one thing "to accept" (the name of this episode was "Acceptance") but quite another "to surrender". The former denotes passivity; the latter, action. This show, to be authentic, needs some love-in-action, not just acquiescence. Ho-hum.


Christianity exists for the sake of people with dysfunctions; dysfunctional people make life worth living because they are interesting (I think the producer Barbara Hall said that once). Jesus and dysfunctional people, well, all  sinners and flawed human beings, are friends. But Jesus always invites us to do better, to go beyond ourselves; here, Jesus was like toast. (Oh, for Joan of Arcadia’s God to return… but we let that show slip away through apathy; shame on us.)


My bet is that the writers know about religion (or they have good consultants) so they get the terminology right, the imagery (the stained glass window effect is very creative) and maybe the vestments; they certainly nailed the sins and smorgasbord morality of that part of our culture that is Christian-flavored. But there’s no deeply felt life here, it doesn't have a point of view, and for this the two-hour premiere didn’t quite work for me.


Now, the new show In Justice (Friday's ABC, 9/8pm) this one has my attention. By the second episode I think it found its legs. The Book of Daniel has some distance to go before it finds a permanent place in my TiVo lineup (well, the satellite version.)

Monday, January 2, 2006

My Favorite Films of 2005

Not counting all the films I saw at the Locarno Film Festival, I saw 80 new releases this year – out of the top 250 films that will gross a million or more domestically. If you check the weekly VARIETY for the third week of January, you can see the entire list of highest grossing films.


Here’s my "Sweet Sixteen" list of favorites in alphabetical order; they are all reviewed in this blog:


Batman Begins


Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’

Constant Gardener


Good Night and Good Luck

History of Violence

Innocent Voices

King Kong

La Neuvaine (tba)                                                             

Mad Hot Ballroom

March of the Penguins




Walk the Line

The Family Stone

It’s Christmas and Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) goes home with her boyfriend Everett (Dermot Mulroney) for the holidays to meet his family, the Stones.


Meredith seems as tightly wound, like her knob of hair at the back of her head. She looks cold, and younger sister Amy (Rachel McAdams) baits her continually, trying to make the ice queen crack. Even Everett seems to have taken on some of Meredith’s temperament. His brother Ben (Luke Wilson) arrives  and is polar opposites of his brother, that is, he is extremely casual; especially the way he dresses. Brother Thad (Tyrone Giordano), who is hearing impaired, arrives with his partner, Patrick (Brian J. White). Mom (Diane Keaton) and Dad (Craig T. Nelson) welcome another daughter, who is expecting, and her little girl, Elizabeth (Savannah Stehlin).


Meredith gets off on the wrong foot by refusing to share Everett’s room and this means Amy has to sleep on the couch. Mom is no slouch, and she thinks Meredith’s a hypocrite (in so many words). Everyone realizes that Everett is making a mistake so when he asks his mom for the family ring so he can propose on Christmas, she refuses.


Meanwhile, Meredith makes her own family’s Christmas morning breakfast special, wanting to do something for her hosts. But she feels out-of-place and calls her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to come (from Bedford; a nod to It’s a Wonderful Life?) and stay with her for moral support; she moves out of the house to the Inn.. When Julie arrives, Everett is kind of surprised; meanwhile Ben seems to have Meredith figured out. And what about Amy?


At dinner on Christmas Eve Thad and Patrick start talking about the baby they want to adopt and the uptight, prudish Meredith, asks: “But is it nature or nurture? I mean do you want to raise a child with gay parents, it’s already hard enough…” Mom tries to explain that the family has always thought that people are born the way they are born and so forth. Meredith could have stopped this inappropriate line of conversation at any moment, but she keeps going until Dad tells her to stop. What was a bad situation becomes even worse.


The next morning, (that night has a lot of the story in it), when gifts are shared, Meredith surprises all of them with the mother & child gift she has brought for each of the Stones; only they realize the ultra significance of it at first


The Family Stone is not a comedy though it has its moments. It is a very touching family story, where babies are born, love blossoms, and people die, and life goes on, to the next Christmas, when the family will gather again to celebrate their gift to one another.


I went to see the film with my younger sister. I was cringing through the whole table conversation part of the film, but my sister said she thought Meredith asked the kinds of questions about homosexuality that people think anyway. I said, “But she should have stopped! Anyone could see that she was digging a very deep hole and being offensive (a guest, people she didn’t even know, etc.). But my sister replied, “All of us get in situations where we should have shut up and didn’t; I kind of understood her.”


You will have to see for yourself if the film has a main character or a main theme as a character. I thought Diane Keaton was wonderful, and I always like Luke Wilson (seems to play the same basic kind of guy in all his films, but it works.) They keep mentioning the town of "Bedford” to the extent that you think the filmmaker must be trying to tell you something.


The Family Stone is a conventional film at times (I hate it when you can guess the dialogue) and unconventional at other times. It’s a film about family, dysfunction, fitting in, acceptance, the fact that nobody’s perfect and that family is all we’ve got, like them or not. 


I liked them a lot.


(Some might think this is a film with a politically correct agenda; the gay hearing-impaired son, adopting a baby with his partner, who is, by the way, African-American; Meredith who sleeps with her boyfriend won't do so in his parent's home, and Meredith's ill-timed interrogation of two dads raising a child - and which race will it be? There are many ethical and moral themes in the film that people may want to talk about, that are good to talk about. Perhaps the parents' seemingly easy acquiescence to their children's lifestyles most of all. Yet, what are parents to do with the choices their children make; what is God to do with the choices we make? Parents teach and love their children as God does us; then God leaves us free but God never stops loving us. 


After Meredith's fiasco at the dinner table, all I could think of was what Pope John XXIII said about religious controversy in 1959 when he announced the Second Vatican Council:


"in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity."


Maybe the Stone's had some distance to go about the essentials of God's will for us, but for them, charity reigned. Moral relativism is easy; charity is not. What's it to be?


(Other members of my family have now seen this film and they think the Stone's were terrible and very uncharitable; they disagree with my take very strongly. I stick to my review, however, because in the end "family is all we have" - and I think they were tolerant; they were facing a huge challenge that only a few of the family knew about... I do think Meredith had a lot of heart, and so did the "stones".)


Rumor Has It

(Semi-spoiler but if you go see the movie and don’t read this first, you’ll have only yourself to blame.)


Sarah (Jennifer Anniston) is on her way to Pasadena with boyfriend Jeff ( Mark Ruffalo) for her sister Annie’s (Mena Suvari) wedding. Sarah and Jeff are engaged but Sarah tells Jeff she isn’t wearing her ring because she wants to wait to announce their wedding.


Dad Earl (Richard Jenkins) meets them at the airport and proceeds to Pasaden-ize Jeff.

Sarah is kind of identity neurotic; she doesn’t fit in with her family; she’s nervous about marrying Jeff. Over the weekend she finds out from her mother’s mother Katharine (“I told you not to call me Grandma!” Shirely MacLaine) that her own now deceased mom took off a week before her wedding; she went to Cabo and had a fling with Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner). It suddenly occurs to Sarah that her family story sounds a lot like that of The Graduate. She proceeds to investigate so she can discover who she is. And of course it involves sleeping with you-know-who.


That’s the movie in a nut shell, which is where it belongs.


I know there are a lot of Jennifer Anniston fans out there, but someone really has to get her a script that doesn’t look like a charity handout.


This film had three things going for it: close-ups of Jennifer’s face and hair; Shirley MacLaine (all four funny lines are hers and they were all in the trailers; will we never learn?) and Richard Jenkins who played the father with dignity; Earl was a great choice of name for him.


Here’s what the writers (shame on them) should have done: made this Shirley MacLaine’s movie. She’s a really funny lady. Can you imagine going back and seeing this story through Mrs. Robinson's POV?




It’s been a week since I saw Munich and I am still in mourning.


I have tried not to give away too much here, but it is not possible to only outline a film like this. It made my list of top films for 2005. 


Munich is the story of the systematic revenge killings for the 1972 assassinations of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, Germany. The Israeli government commissioned the secret killings of eleven of the Palestinians who planned the assassinations. The Israeli’s rationalized them by the necessity that civilizations sometimes need “to negotiate the compromise of their values” - as the film has Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) declares in a quiet tone, steeled with resolve. 


Munich opens with the blow by blow account of what began that early morning at the Olympic Village; it is terrible and violent. 


The Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence service, recruits one of its own, Avner (Eric Bana); his handler is Ephraim (Goeffrey Rush) who sets up the bank accounts among other things. Avner must sign a paper that he is not employed by the Mossad so that if the plan goes awry, nothing can be traced back to the Israeli government.  He is sworn to silence. Avner is recently married and he and his wife are expecting their first child; he is conflicted between his task as an assassin and his family. He visits his mother (Gila Almagor) to say good-bye; they speak of his father who deserted his wife and child for the sake of government work. The Mossad accountant demands receipts; he provides the only humor in the film, but at the same time his lack of concern for how the money will be used does little to balance the darkness to come.


Avner heads a team of four Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the bomb expert, but we find that his real expertise was in disarming bombs and making toys; Carl (Ciaran Hinds), a quiet, almost repressed individual who makes sure no evidence is left after ever incident; Steve (Daniel Craig and the new James Bond), drives the get-away car and is a marksman, and Hans (Hanns Zischler), who  forges their documents. With the help of a Frenchman named Louis (Mathieu Amalric), Avner discovers where the targets are staying. Louis also sets up safe houses for a price, all the while insisting that he does not work for governments. Louis’ father, “Papa” (Michael Lonsdale), an ex-World WarII French resistance fighter, is the actual head of Louis’ network, but his motivations, for all his protestations, seem murky. Papa is also the head of a large extended family that lives with him in the French country-side; the children laugh and play; they welcome Avner without judgment; they feel safe, as if the real world does not even exist.


One by one, the team assassinates the targets, first by rifle, then by bombs. Louis provides unstable explosives (or the toy-maker turned bomb-maker has made a mistake) and there is collateral damage – more people are killed than intended. Avner sneaks home when his child is born and tells his wife to move to Brooklyn. He senses that he and his family will become targets of Palestinian revenge - or worse.


The turning point of the film comes when Louis sets up a safe house one night for both Avner’s team and a Palestinian team. Although Avner does not know who the group is protecting or targeting, they sleep side by side in an uneasy rest. Avner and the head of the Palestinian group talk; “You don’t know what it’s like not to have a home,” he tells Avner. But Avner is realizing that he may have lost his "home" as well. Meanwhile, they later confront one another in a gun-grenade street battle; and a little more of Avner’s humanity disappears.


And every once in a while there are flashbacks to the Olympic Village events, to keep the fire going.


The team was told never to go to Arab countries to track anyone; yet they do; then they track down the woman who killed one of their team, and kill her. The revenge killings become personal. One by one, Avner’s team is killed or commits suicide, until only he and Steve are left.


Killing begets killing; no one knows who to trust. The violence escalates to unbelievable intensity, and I, for one, began to cry. It was impossible not to; the waste, the futility, the never-ending cycle of violence begetting violence; these beautiful young men and women destroyed, physically and spiritually, before theyhave a chance to live.


"Revenge" has been given credibility; it has been baptized, if you will, and made a "value" - something worth dying for, as if it were transcendent like justice, love, honesty, integrity. Even the most powerful nations on the earth, that should know better, know how to take revenge and they do. Defense and revenge are not the same thing.


Avner eventually stops after seven or so of the targets are killed; he and Steve return to Israel. Steve is interrogated and reveals Louis’ name but Avner will not give him up. Even though Louis’ loyalty is questionable, Avner won’t budge; his loyalty is not. Someone has to take a stand. Avner then joins his wife in Brooklyn; he believes the CIA is watching him, as it most surely interfered in one of their attempts in London. When he confronts the Israeli ambassador, Ephraim is sent to talk to him. He wants Avner back; they argue; Avner refuses. Just before they part, Avner says, “Wait; it says somewhere that we are to break bread together. Come to my home; let us break bread together.” Ephraim looks at him and says, “No”; he turns and walks away.


If the meeting with the Palestinian at the safe house was the turning point of the film, the ending was the final statement of the ideology the film was trying to explore: Ephraim, the representative of the Mossad and presumably the Israeli government, refused to break bread together, refused to make peace. Even though the film stopped, it is not over.


This film is no Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan; there are no heroes here, there is no moral center that anchors the “right” against the “wrong”. This is a complex film about complex human and political issues. I think the film wanted to give the audience a visceral experience of the on-going Israeli-Palestinian war (struggle? Seems much to mild a word) carried out through terrorist tactics. No one has clean hands. No one.


The acting is spot-on. Eric Bana was the one actor who stood out in Troy; here he proves that he can inhabit any role. 


There are motifs in the film; Spielberg’s “lonely child” theme is present, and here it is generational and crosses cultures. The toy/bomb-maker expresses it best, I think, in the toys he makes, almost compulsively. He is the first to “break”. With an almost total male cast, this film is an island of lost boys.


As I left the theater I had a conversation with three audience members; one was a teacher of Buddhism who was not a pacifist, who believed that some things are worth defending. I believe in defense, too, but I also believe that negotiation is the only way to peace, that is, to resolve conflict. Israel is a recognized state in the world today, but what of the people that were displaced in the process of its becoming a sovereign country? After almost sixty years, they are still without a homeland. 


Is it really in the world’s interest (the process of globalization unguided by human rights anddignity) that wars and terrorism continue? Several films in 2006 would have us think so(Lord of War, Syriana, The Constant Gardener, Paradise Now). These films challenge us and if we enter into them with our moral imaginations, perhaps we can find a way to contribute to peace-making based on justice. Without justice, there can be no peace.


Some may question the facts ofthe film. First of all, this is not a documentary(and we ought question documentaries aswell because they are made according to someone's particular point of view) so we can assume some fiction. The question is not: is the film factual, but is it true?


Munich will make you think; perhaps you will get out of the film what you bring to it; but perhaps, it will help all of us walk in the shoes of someone else for a while, and see things differently, that is, to see possibilities for peace and do something. 


Munich is not a feel-good movie, but it is a film that is filled with deeply felt life and pain – and too much death.