Thursday, June 29, 2006

Nativity Story - The latest!!!

Check out the web site


The Nativity Story


New Line Cinema has launched the official website for director Catherine Hardwicke's The Nativity Story, opening worldwide in theaters on December 1.

At the site, you can watch the new teaser trailer and a featurette on the drama. You can also view a photo gallery and read the synopsis.

Written by Mike Rich, the film stars Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ciaran Hinds and Shaun Toub.


Release Date: December 1, 2006
Studio: New Line Cinema
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, The Rookie, Radio, Miracle)
Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Oscar Isaac, Ciaran Hinds, Shaun Toub

Produced By: Wyck Godfrey & Marty Bowen
Genre: Drama
 Plot Summary: THE NATIVITY STORY chronicles the humble and miraculous story of Mary (Oscar-nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) that spans nearly two years – culminating in their departure from Nazareth and their 100-mile journey to Bethlehem,

to the birth of Jesus Christ.  


The studio and filmmakers have worked hard to ensure that the film is both historically and biblically accurate.  A wide spectrum of Christian New Testament scholars and historians has been involved in the pre-production process. This is the first time in over 50 years that a biblical story has been released by a major motion picture studio...

If you watch the "extras" section, you'll see me on the set! (Look closely; it goes by fast... Sr. Rose)

Quinceanera, Crash win Humanitas Prizes


Los Angeles, CA – June 28, 2006. Eleven writers took home a share of $145,000 in prize money for films and television shows that “entertain, engage and enrich the viewing public.” Over 350 writers, directors, producers and entertainment executives gathered today at the Hilton Universal Hotel to celebrate great writing at the 32nd HUMANITAS Prize.

Frank Desiderio, President of the HUMANITAS Prize, began the luncheon by reminding theaudience of the significant role that film and television can have in motivating behavior.

Desiderio stated, “the scripts that we honor today deal with some of the most critical issuesfacing society: medical ethics, racism, global warming and third world debt. We want to move people from their comfort zone and foster dialogue.”

HBO FILMS President, Colin Callender, received the “Kieser Award” for his vision as an executive, his leadership in the industry and for his ability to create an environment where filmmakers can succeed. The “Kieser Award” is named after producer and priest

Fr. Ellwood “Bud” Kieser, the founder of the HUMANITAS Prize.

For the first time in over ten years a Special Award was given to a documentary film. “An Inconvenient Truth,” directed by Davis Guggenheim, chronicles former vice president Al Gore’s decades long commitment to the issue of global warming. The film weaves scientific data and personal anecdotes into a cohesive narrative that challenges viewers.

“Although the film is alarming, it doesn’t call us to despair, but rather to get involved,” added Chris Donahue, Executive Director of the HUMANITAS Prize.

The 32nd HUMANITAS Prize winners are:

Feature Film Category ($25,000)

CRASH Written by: Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco (Lions Gate Films)

A 36-hour period in the diverse metropolis of post-Sept. 11 Los Angeles is the theme of this unflinching drama that challenges audiences to confront their prejudices. Cited “for its call to reach out with respect and compassion to all of our brothers and sisters.”

90 Minute Category ($25,000)

THE GIRL IN THE CAFÉ Written by: Richard Curtis (HBO)

The story of a hard-working, shy civil servant Lawrence, and his life-changing relationship with the mysterious girl he meets in a café opposite Downing Street. Cited “for the clarion call to universal concern.”

Sundance Feature Film Category ($10,000)

QUINCEANERA Written by: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (Sony Classics) As Magdelena’s fifteenth birthday approaches, her life is consumed by thoughts of her boyfriend, her Quinceañera dress, and the Hummer limo she hopes will show up on her special day. Life seems so simple in her Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, until fate delivers an unwelcome surprise. Cited “for its enlightened view of living in a multi-cultural world."

60 Minute Category ($15,000)

HOUSE: Three Stories Written by: David Shore (FOX)

Dr. House gives the med students a class they’ll never forget as he weaves the stories of three patients who all present similar symptoms. Cited “for its poignant probe into the pain and confusion that comes when someone we love disappoints us.”

30 Minute Category ($10,000)

MY NAME IS EARL: Pilot Episode Written by: Greg Garcia (NBC)

Charismatic smalltime crook Earl J. Hickey wins $100,000 in the lottery and then is immediately hit by a car. Cited “for its light hearted portrayal of how we can right our wrongs.”

Children's Animation Category ($25,000)

MISS SPIDER’S SUNNY PATCH FRIENDS: A Froggy Day in Sunny Patch (Nick, Jr.)

Written by: Alice Prodanou, Michael Stokes, Steven Sullivan

The Spider kids befriend a loveable, non-conformist frog named Felix, but keep their friendship under the radar, to protect Felix from Spiderus and his corps of bumbling anti-frog vigilantes. Cited “for its whimsical portrayal of the importance of friendships.”

Children's Live Action Category ($25,000)

EDGE OF AMERICA Written by: Willy Holtzman (Showtime)

Inspired by true events – the story of Kenny Williams, an African-American from Texas, who comes to teach at the Three Nations Reservation High School in Utah. Cited “for showing that caring and compassionate adults can make a difference.”

Colin Marshall, a graduate student at Columbia University, was named the recipient of the “2006 David and Lynn Angell HUMANITAS Comedy Fellowship.” Marshall received a $10,000 stipend at the luncheon. His winning comedy spec script was an episode of “My Name is Earl.”

Since its inception in 1974, the HUMANITAS Prize has presented over 240 prizes and

dispersed over 2.5 million dollars in prize money to television and motion picture writers, whose work honestly explores the complexities of the human experience and sheds light on the positive values of life. Each year, the HUMANITAS Prize holds Master Writers Workshops presented by today's leading writers. Winners of the HUMANITAS Prize have included: Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues); Alan Alda (M*A*S*H); David E. Kelley (The Practice); Horton Foote (William Faulkner's OLD MAN); Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List); Tim Robbins (Dead Man Walking); Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (Good Will Hunting); Aaron Sorkin ( Sports Night, The West Wing) and Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me).

For more information, please visit the website at


(From the press release)


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Superman Returns


       “You know there are only three things that sell newspapers,” Perry White (Frank Langella) practically shouts at reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in director Bryan Singer’s new film about the Man of Steel: “Sex, tragedy, and Superman!” 



Superman Returns, while showing no sex (but implies a one night encounter between Superman and Lois before he left five years earlier), delivers intense action and impending human and environmental tragedy, and brings audiences a new iconic image of a gentler Superman/Clark Kent transformed by the power of love.


Why the World Needs Superman


After a long absence Superman (Brandon Routh) returns from a search for his home planet, Krypton, that he found was truly destroyed. He returns to earth in fire. His “mother” Martha (Eva Marie Saint), driving the same old truck, comes to find him in the same field. Clark remembers his childhood when he discovered his super powers, and hears again the words of his father Jor-El (archived footage of Marlon Brando):


“Even though you've been raised as a human being you're not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.”



      Superman’s return is well-timed because Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from prison since Superman failed to make his court date to testify against him. Luthor gets a rich old woman to sign her fortune over to him on her death bed and with his goons and his moll, Kitty (Parker Posey), he sets out to build a new continent that will displace North America and other countries and land masses. He has melded the crystallized elements of kryptonite stolen from a science exhibition and crystals he stole from the Arctic where Superman used to go to commune with his father. Kryptonite is the only thing that can kill Superman. Luthor’s technological and elemental power-surge, if successful, will kill billions of people.



Clark gets his old job back at The Daily Planet. Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) is thrilled to see him. Clark is startled to learn that Lois has a five year-old son named Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). She is living with Richard (James Mardsden), an editor, but won’t marry him. She is to receive a Pulitzer Prize for her article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” and is stymied because White now demands she write one titled, “Why the World Needs Superman”. (“Don’t worry,” he tells her, “no one will notice. Pultizers are like the Academy Awards; after a while no one remembers what you got it for.”) The first day Clark gets back, Lois, and a whole plane full of reporters, must be rescued because of Luthor’s machinations. The rescue is beyond spectacular.



A Theological Reading of Superman Returns


        Many believers who have reflected on the 1978 film Superman: The Movie (that starred Christopher Reeve) noticed that it provided imaginative and plausible parallels with the Gospel. It seemed to have been written “with attention to both the theology of the Incarnation and the words of St. John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18) about the relation of the Son to the Father,” according to Lights, Camera… Faith: A Movie Lectionary, CycleA by Peter Malone, MSH and myself. We assign Superman: The Movie to dialogue with the readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas.


        Christian fans of The Movie will be happy to see that Superman Returns continues even more clearly to develop those Gospel parallels, moving from the mysticism of St. John’s Prologue into the reality of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus as recounted in John 18-20 (see readings for Good Friday or Easter Sunday). Without stretching the metaphor too far, Superman is a Christ-figure, that is, a character that embodies some aspects of the person and mission of Jesus, but with some flaws or imperfections. (In contrast, a Jesus-figure is an actor who actually plays the role of Jesus in films, such as Robert Powell did in Jesus of Nazareth in 1977 or Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ in 2004.)




        Luthor is a parallel to Pontius Pilate or even Caesar, and his guards torture Superman and gamble at cards. He is also diabolical and dark, and everything he touches is ruined, shrouded in thedestructive forces of wind, rain, and fire, and colored with doom. The events in the film do not synchronize perfectly with Jesus’ life, but no matter. Superman, who has saved so many, must in turn be saved, and it is the love of a woman and a child that transform him when he takes the weight of the world on his shoulders. Superman’s side is pierced for humanity and his resurrection is magnificent. The Daily Planet staff, like the evangelists and witnesses of Jesus’ life, writes down everything they have seen and heard.


Three female characters stand out in Superman Returns. Lois is the love interest, and the question of whose son Jason is begins to emerge early on. Lois’ relationship with Superman is very romantic, and the proof of their love is their willingness to make sacrifices for one another. (This aspect of the plot is one Dan Brown would like; Superman’s super hero powers seem to be genetically transferable and he is interested in a lasting relationship.) Kitty, whom Luthor treats as if she were a poodle, lets herself be used at first, but when the moment comes, she, like the faithful women of the Gospels, becomes a hero. Finally, there is Martha, Clark Kent’s foster mother. She always believes in him, loves completely, waits, is steadfast, and never falters. Martha lets Clark be the man he has been called and sent to be.


Jason is the little child who leads the grown-ups on their quest and slowly becomes aware of who he is.




Sister Madonna Janet, FSP who came to the screening with me, said that some images of Superman hovering over the world reminded her of Salvador Dali’s masterpiece “The Christ of St. John”. “When Martha finds her son in the field,” Sr. Madonna also observed, “she holds him as Mary did Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pieta’.” To me, Superman seemed at times like an angel that brings news of salvation and a message of hope for the future, a symbol of God’s nearness to humanity.


Reading the Film


        Bryan Singer has directed an engrossing pop culture film with high entertainment – and inspirational – value, sprinkled with light humor. Superman Returns was effectively written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, based on a story they developed with Singer using characters from the original DC Comic Books created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Here, the action is non-stop, the special effects are over the top and Superman’s feats unbelievable - but by the time we realize this, we have suspended belief and entered into the world of Metropolis and the lives of a small group of people we care about. The scene at the baseball stadium makes Spider-Man’s train-stopping heroics look feeble. If there is one glaring flaw in the film, it is the lack of ethnic diversity in the cast. Metropolis is a very white world; most cinematic universes today are populated with a real cross-section of humanity. It is also noteworthy that the familiar "Truth, justice and the American way" has been amended to "Truth, justice ... and whatever..." (or something close to this.)


        Brandon Routh succeeds as Superman, mostly because he does not try to be Christopher Reeve, who for many of us was Superman, or even George Reeves of the 1950’s television series that I really liked as a kid. But Routh is almost too geeky as Clark Kent and he has really bad hair (Jason has inexplicably bad hair as well), but as Superman his hair is almost plastic perfect. Clark does not know how to be a regular guy and though his co-workers question his identity, his artificial demeanor never seems to enter their heads.


Superman’s physique is chiseled and his facial features so flawless that I wondered if his face was computer-generated. But you get used to it because his is a kind visage – and very easy on the eyes. Routh never goes beyond the gigantic role he has been given, and flies with humility through the concrete canyons of Metropolis where great men have gone before him. Image-wise, there are several iconic visuals of Superman that are so deliberately crafted that they made me laugh. Others inspired. In the end the movie was so entertaining I just went along for the ride.


        For reasons I will not go into here Lois never gets her Pulitzer. As the film concludes she is more than willing to write why the world needs Superman, indeed, a savior. Comic books and science fiction aside, that never changes.


Saturday, June 24, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth Wins Humanitas Prize Special Award



Los Angeles, CA – June 21, 2006.

The documentary feature film “An Inconvenient Truth,” will receive a Special Award from the HUMANITAS Prize at its annual awards luncheon on June 28th. This is the first time in over 10 years that the organization has voted to grant a Special Award. “When evaluating films and television shows we ask, ‘does it make a significant contribution to the human family by communicating values, forming consciences and motivating human behavior?’,” commented Frank Desiderio, President of the HUMANITAS Prize.  “‘An Inconvenient Truth’ does all of that and more. It’s a very important film, we want to shine a light on it.”

“An Inconvenient Truth” chronicles former vice president Al Gore’s decades long commitment to the issue of global warming. The film weaves scientific data and personalanecdotes into a cohesive narrative that challenges viewers. “Although the film is alarming, it doesn’t call us to despair, but rather to get involved,” added Chris Donahue, Executive Director of the HUMANITAS Prize.

“I am thrilled that HUMANITAS has chosen to recognize "AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH" with such a rare and special award,” stated Al Gore. “Director Davis Guggenheim, the producers, Lawrence Bender, Laurie David and Scott Burns, and the co-producer, Lesley Chilcott are very deserving of this honor.”

“HUMANITAS has honored many outstanding films over the years and in doing so supports the achievements and sacrifices of filmmakers trying to change the world,” said executive producer Davis Guggenheim. “We are thrilled to be included in this great tradition.”

Although the HUMANITAS Prize is traditionally given for fictional stories, on occasion the Board of Directors has voted to give an award to a documentary film. In 1995, a Special Award was given to Bill Moyers and Judith Davidson Moyers for “What Can We Do about Violence?” In 1993, Mary Jo Peltier and Arnold Shapiro received a Special Award for “Sacred Silent: Ending and Exposing Child Abuse” which was broadcast simultaneously on ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS.

Since its inception in 1974, the HUMANITAS Prize has presented over 237 prizes and dispersed over 2.4 million dollars in prize money to television and motion picture writers, whose work honestly explores the complexities of the human experience and sheds light on the positive values of life. Each year, the HUMANITAS Prize holds Master Writers Workshops presented by today's leading writers.

Winners of the HUMANITAS Prize have included: Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues); Alan Alda (M*A*S*H); David E. Kelley (The Practice); Barbara Hall (Joan of Arcadia); Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List); Tim Robbins (Dead Man Walking); Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (Good Will Hunting); Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night, The West Wing) and Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me).

For more information, please visit the HUMANITAS Prize website at



First-timers, director Patrick Creadon and writer Christine O’Malley, have created an endearing film about crossword puzzles and the people who love them. Some are even obsessed by them. Everyone in the film plays him or herself.


At the center of the film is Will Shortz, editor and puzzler extraordinaire, of the New York Times’ Crossword Puzzles and the annual Crossword tournament held annually at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Ct.



Throughout the 90-minute documentary we meet former tournament winners and people who have been members of this unique community since its beginning in 1978. The final part of the film is about the surprise winner of the 2005 tournament.


I noticed some things about the puzzlers who are interviewed (including Jon Stewart who is hilarious, as well as former President Bill Clinton who said he likes to do the NYT crosswords because it lets him know what people are thinking about these days.)  Puzzlers (and winners of the tournament) as shown in the film are mostly white males, and many in the film are left-handed (does this say something about why they like to do puzzles? I don't know...)


Someone in the film says that generally puzzlers in the U.S. are either musicians or experts in the computer field. The consensus of the opinions expressed about why people do crosswords puzzles is because they appeal to the human desire to figure things out and solve mysteries. The puzzle constructors, those who make the puzzles and submit them to the NYTimes are fascinating, as are the how and why the rules of creating puzzles came about. Did you know that the Sunday Times’ crossword does not have any words that are body parts or functions? It just won’t do.


Is it a Monday, or A Tuesday puzzle, asks Will shortz when puzzles are submitted. Or a Saturday or Sunday puzzle? Wonder what the difference is? Try them....


Like Spellbound, and Mad Hot Ballroom, it’s a joy to see a film about people having innocent fun doing something that makes community, promotes civility and learning, and can inspire people to be good at something different than the usual competitive fields (like football!) and that doesn’t include violence.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Nativity: Here's the buzz

You may have noticed that a film named NATIVITY is beginning to appear in magazines such as Entertainment Weekly, Christianity Today, and this week’s Time. It stars Whale Rider’s Kiesha Castle-Hughes as Mary and Oscar Issacs as Joseph, with Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen; Lords of Dogtown) directing. Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) is Elizabeth and Ciaran Hinds is King Herod. Mike Rich, who wrote Finding Forrester and The Rookie, penned the screenplay.


Whale Rider is one of my favorite films of all time, and when I learned that Kiesha was playing Mary, I thought, “This is perfect casting.” She's fifteen now and just the right age to play Mary.


NATIVITY is about the year before Jesus was born as lived by Mary, her family, friends, Joseph. It also reflects the religious and socio-political situation of the times. NATIVITY will be released world-wide on December 1, 2006 by New Line Cinema.


It was an honor and a privilege to be included in a group of journalists (television, print, and online) in May to go to Matera, Italy, (south of Bari) where much of the film was being shot. (The action has now moved to Morocco.) We had the opportunity while visiting the “set” (several acres big; they were shooting Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem the day we were there) to speak with the producers, Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey, writer Mike Rich (and his lovely wife, Grace), Catherine Hardwicke, Kiesha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Issacs.


Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew, and Christ Stopped at Eboli (based on the novel by Carlo Levi) were all filmed in Matera as well.


My feature article on NATIVITY will appear in St. Anthony Messenger ( later this year, but I wanted you to know that this film is one of the good ones. Visiting the re-created villages of Nazareth and Bethlehem was inspiring; the script is warm and inviting. I think that NATIVITY will become the Christmas classic we will want to see every year.


Here are some of my photos. Watch this space! More to come. The group picture was taken in the hotel. I am standing in the doorway of Mary's house in Nazareth. Matera is located in the "arch" of Italy's "boot". The other two pictures are of the production...


Monday, June 19, 2006

Road to Guantanamo

Coming on the heels of President George W. Bush’s May 8th remarks that he would like to close the prison at Guantanamo, Cuba, pending the outcome of a Supreme Court ruling on how prisoners there would be tried (www., and the recent suicides of three Guantanamo detainees on June 11th comes Michael Winterbottom’s award-winning film, The Road to Guantanamo. It opens in theaters nation-wide on June 23.


The gritty drama/documentary tells the story of the “Tipton Three”, Ruhal Ahmed, now 24, Asif Iqbal, 24, and Shafiq Rasul, 28, and the tortures they endured at the hands of the U.S. military while in confinement first at Camp X-Ray and then at Camp Delta from early 2002 until their release in 2004. The three Britons of Pakistani parentage, two of whom were teenagers at the time of their capture by the Afghanistan Northern Alliance in the weeks following 9/11, were in Pakistan for Asif’s wedding. While staying at a mosque rather than a hotel to save money they joined a large group of men going to Afghanistan to help their brothers.

                        (From the dramatization of the film)

While most Americans would deem it unthinkable to travel to Pakistan, never mind Afghanistan, following 9/11, “The young men did not speak the language, Urdu,” according to filmmaker Michael Winterbottom at a question/answer session following a screening on June 18th sponsored by Amnesty International. “They were young, not politically astute, and at the mercy of the people from the mosque that they were with. They probably thought it was an adventure or charity work they were going to do.”


Althoughthe men were able to account for their presence in Great Britain before arriving in Pakistan, (one was on probation and made consistent court appearances between 2000 and 2001; another worked), they were detained in unthinkable conditions without access to lawyers or even a phone call to their families while in prison. They were never charged with any crime.


“All non-Afghans were considered enemy combatants once the U.S. began its offensive,” Jumana Musa, Amnesty International USA’s Advocacy Director for Domestic Human rights and International Justice, told the same audience. “In a crude ‘scooping up process’ the U.S. was paying $5,000.00 for each non-Afghan they turned into U.S. and British forces by the Northern Alliance. Once they were in Guantanamo they were considered terrorists.”


“These men were not radical and not religious,” said Musa. “If you were a foreigner in Afghanistan, you were going to Guantanamo.”


The central theme of the film, however, is the dramatization of the prison regime in Guantanamo, the torture, isolation, and the absurd interrogations these young men endured while incarcerated. “You can change the terms to ‘stress positions” or loud music’ or use of ‘strobe lights’, but when you understand what these mean and how they were used together, they constitute torture to the rest of the world,” continued Musa.


Director Winterbottom, who won the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear this year for the film, used a small crew of six or seven to make the film. When asked why he has a co-director (Mat Whitecross), Winterbottom responded, “He did everything I didn’t do. Once the young men agreed to the film, he spent a month with them, taking down hundreds of pages of transcript for the story. We had to compress much repetition (e.g. the interrogations) into the film’stimeframe to tell the story.” Winterbottom chose to use actors for the dramatization,recreating Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta, and the actual testimonies of the three men throughout which constitutes the documentary dimension of the film.


While the film offers much detail about the journey of the three young men (they started out as five) that is not always easy to follow, the film is effective and heart-breaking. One audience member asked how much dramatic license had been taken for the film and Winterbottom replied that it is based on the transcripts of the young men’s story, and they and their lawyer’s have seen it. He believes it is factual and true, though compressed for the film.


Winterbottom noted that none of the three men wanted to come to the United States to promote the film and that the poster for the film had to be changed. “We couldn’t use a picture with a hood on a man’s head; it was thought to be too upsetting.” At the end of the film each of the three men say what they learned from this experience. The lack of anger was impressive. One said that while before he was never religious, he has become so. The young man with the police record said this experience changed his life completely. And Asif, who did finally marry a young woman in Pakistan, said that it was time to move on with his life.


“Some detainees in Guantanamo are bad guys,” attested Musa, who has visited there with other NGO’s, but not allowed access to any prisoners and permitted only to see the remains of Camp X-ray from a distance and to be driven around the perimeter of Camp Delta. “But this doesn’t excuse throwing out the rule book” for the treatment of prisoners.


The Road to Guantanamo is astonishing on one level, and deeply evocative on another. I felt a great sadness and the burden of this knowledge. The film is a serious and worthy contributionto the growing filmography or genre about human rights violations ongoing in the world.AmnestyInternational hopes that people will talk about the film and to raise awareness. More information is available on their website, and educational materials area available on the film’s website:


Pope Benedict XVI wrote on Jan. 1, 2006, the World Day of Peace: "Peace appears as a heavenly gift and a divine grace which demands at every level the exercise of the highest responsibility: that of conforming human history-in truth, justice, freedom and love-to the divine order. Whenever there is a loss of fidelity to the transcendent order, and a loss of respect for that 'grammar' of dialogue which is the universal moral law written on human hearts, whenever the integral development of the person and the protection of his fundamental rights are hindered or denied, whenever countless people are forced to endure intolerable injustices and inequalities, how can we hope that the good of peace will be realized? The essential elements which make up the truth of that good are missing. St. Augustine described peace as tranquillitas ordinis: the tranquility of order." Everyone should feel committed to service to the great good of peace. All people are members of one and the same family. An extreme exaltation of differences clashes with this fundamental truth.  We share a common destiny. 






Saturday, June 17, 2006

Nacho Libre


I like Jack Black. Ever since I saw him in a darkly comedic sequence in Alison Maclean’s 1999 film Jesus’ Son, I’ve liked Jack Black.


And I like Jared (and Jerusha) Hess’ 2004 film Napoleon Dynamite, about a geek with a big heart and hidden talents. They directed and co-wrote Nacho Libre.


I even liked the trailers for Nacho Libre. So despite all the other films opening this weekend, I went to see Nacho Libre today.


Jack plays Nacho, a young man who happened to become a friar because he was orphaned and evidently taken in by a monastery in the middle of nowhere, Mexico. He becomes the cook, but as the years go by, he has less to cook with since the other friars don’t provide him with money for fresh ingredients. The kids get tired of the swill, and one of the brothers, who is not very nice to Nacho, complains that he has had diarrhea since Easter.


But Nacho has a secret: he wants to be a wrestler, a luchedor. Luche libre wrestling reminded me of a primitive form of the WWF (or now World Wrestling Entertainment). He also has the hots for Penelope Cruz look-alike Sr. Encarnacion, a teacher, played by Ana de la Reguera. Both are conflicted over their vows of celibacy; maybe it’s because Sr. Encarnacion forgot to remove the diamond studs from her ears when she entered the convent.


Nacho finds himself a partner, the homeless day-old-nacho-thief Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), perhaps because he can jump high walls.


They start training, enter the ring, and start making money even though they lose. Nacho buys fresh produce with the money - and outfits himself with luchedor stuff. When Nacho is discovered wrestling by the friars, they kick him out. He goes into the desert to meditate – for one day. Then he gets to the final match – and wins. Now he buys that bus for the orphans, and they (he, Encarnacion and the orphans) drive off to … nowhere and look over what looks like some Aztec ruins, all happy.  Roll the credits. Roll your eye balls.


I wanted to like Nacho Libre but it doesn’t make the cut. Mike White, who wrote School of Rock and several episodes of one of the best TV shows ever made, Freaks and Geeks, must have had indigestion when he wrote Nacho Libre. It’s not funny, and it doesn’t take you by the heart like Napoleon Dynamite did. It’s like a bunch of connected scenes and sequences without any real comedic development.


Certainly, the worst critic of a film portraying religious life and nuns is a nun. Because Nacho and Encarnacion seem barely dedicated to the life they have chosen (when it comes to chastity; they share bread in her bedroom while she’s in her modest night gown and their flirting, while innocent, was an inappropriate distraction) the film comes off as a really poor joke instead of a comedy. I kept waiting for a sweet surprise. Alas.


But it had potential because the kids are good. At one point Nacho (whose real name is Brother Ignacio) says, “The friars think I do not know the Gospel; but I do.” At least Nacho and Encarnacion are genuinely good to the kids.


(Today, Monday, I heard Al Roker on The Today Show call this film a "chip flick". Yes, a day old one.)



Wednesday, June 14, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

[somewhat of a spoiler]


In X-Men (2000) Stan Lee’s classic Marvel comic is brought to the screen. It tells the story of children who are mutants, that is, they are born with an X-Factor in their genes. This factor gives them special powers. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) runs a school for these mutants and wants them to learn to control their powers so as to live peacefully with other humans.


In X-2 (2003) an attempt is made on the president’s life and he does already have it in for the mutants. Xavier sends out two of the mutants to find out who is behind the assassination attempt. It is Stryker (Brian Cox), a kind of religious fanatic, who uses his son to attack the school. Styker also tries to control Xavier’s powers to destroy the mutants.


Meanwhile, the mutant Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is on a journey of self-discovery.


In X-Men:The Last Stand a cure is found for the mutants. Magneto (Ian McKellan throughout the series) wants everyone to take the cure so everyone will be the same, while the mutants, led by Xavier, want to retain their identity. Jean Grey/Phoenix (Famke Jannsen) is thought to be dead but she rises again and it is revealed she has a split personality. She has not learned to integrate her powers, her thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Magneto, rather than Xavier, prevails over her and the scene is set for a great battle.


X-Men was the first comic book-into film that I really liked. I thought X-2 was brilliant; I got it and enjoyed it. X-Men: The Last Stand seems to suffer from its own identity crisis. Wolverine was not even interesting (to me.) I didn’t get why he had to kill Jean Grey – unless she is going to rise again in another sequel. I did think that the idea of who decides who is normal or not is an important theme. In fact, Magneto had once suffered at the hands of the Nazi’s, so perhaps this film’s plot reflects this. I also didn’t get the role of the angel, except that he saved his father who was the one engineering the cure.


Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood, but this last entry into the franchise didn’t quite make the cut for me. All the character development and interest in the characters that X-2 used to engage us, fell, well, flat. Good production qualities it has, of course. It’s the story that mutated just a little too much to yield a satisfying cinematic experience.


Having said this, Kelsey Grammer as Beast/Dr. McCoy, was an excellent addition to the cast. As the film is resolved, this very different "looking" person is made a member of the president's cabinet. We do not all have to look the same to have dignity and value.

An Inconvenient Truth

On Larry King Live last night (June 20th) Al Gore appeared to talk about his film, the book, and the web site ( see   for An Inconvenient Truth. Someone emailed him a question that went something like this: no one has died of global warming, so what are you talking about?



The fact is, as Gore pointed out, tens of thousands of people have died because human practices have caused drastic changes in weather patterns with consequences showing up in drought, heat waves, and so forth, notably the heat wave that struck Europe in 2003. 20,000 people died in Italy. I know; I was there. It was so hot in Rome that I didn’t even go out of one house to the main house for dinner at night. The heat was unbearable, especially to someone with MS. The nightly news was filled with the number of deaths that had occurred because of the heat. Then when we consider Dafur – it’s not only the genocide that is killing people. It’s the effects of global warming, too.


An Inconvenient Truth is a film that makes you want to take notes because it connects the dots of information about science, the economy, human suffering, and the future of the planet all together. In reality, it is a filmed version of a lecture that Al Gore has given a thousand times. It’s a documentary - one that will get under your skin.


I kept thinking: if Michael Moore had used this style, would his messages have been more acceptable to people? Would they have thought about what he was trying to say as he pulled slight of hand with the facts to make his points about the truth as he saw it? Would they have acted upon the messages of his films by the way they voted or how they spend their money, live their lives?


Now we have An Inconvenient Truth that is well-produced; the delivery is calm, well-reasoned, and supported by science. Gore’s inner conviction, that he take the message of global warming to the world now because there is still time to make a difference, emerges softly through his personal reflections that break up the tenor of the lecture. Which, by the way, is like no lecture I have ever seen. It’s obviously being delivered to a studio audience because no one is taking notes as people are not allowed to bring anything into a structured filming like this. However, for its slick production values, Gore’s message is accessible, credible, and convincing.


This doesn’t mean we should not ask questions of the film: is the science real? Has anyone challenged Gore’s facts? In whose interest has this film been made? Is global warming real? What are the consequences for not investigating his premise that global warming is killing us? (Check out National Geographic's analysis of the film:


Gore quotes Winston Churchill who told England in the 1930’s about the growing political [Nazi] threat in Europe: “The era of procrastination is coming to a close; in its place we are entering a period of consequences.” Gore says that if we do not move to stop global warming now, in fifty years the polar ice cap will melt and the earth will not be able to sustain life.


A few things in the film impressed me deeply. One was when Gore said that U.S. cars cannot be sold in China because they do not meet the ecological standards of China. Here we abhor China’s human right violations, but aren’t the air and earth we all share the context for human rights? Isn’t a lack of care for the earth the ultimate human rights violation?


Then Gore spoke about the economy: that to change our environmental standards will improve the economy, not damage it. The one visual, as simple as it is, that expresses this fully is of the scales: on one side there are blocks of gold bullion, on the other is the earth. If there is no earth (which seems like such an extreme, right?), gold won’t matter.


The third thing that hits rather hard is that the United States is the worst offender of the environment of all the countries, and some continents, in the world.


I just saw a commercial with a little girl saying that we have coal reserves that will last another couple hundred years. Maybe she was speaking pro-environment; I couldn’t hear it all. But even if we have coal and petroleum to last for decades, it won’t matter if the polar ice cap is gone. No one is contesting how much natural fossil fuel we have; the issue is global warming and what we can do to change the consequences.


Michael Moore criticized the culture of fear that the media and the government promote; meanwhile his rhetoric generated some fears as well. Gore does not seem to want to make us afraid; he wants to motivate us to take action now, from recycling to supporting candidates who support the environment.


Americans do not like to be inconvenienced. We are into immediate gratification, and heaven help us if the DSL line goes down. I don’t like to be inconvenienced when I have my plans all made and someone calls and all of a sudden my day, my week, my month changes because I am asked to do something for someone else or just do something other than what I had planned.


In the case for the earth, however, to be inconvenienced by the truth of global warming is a choice for others – and for self.


Gore calls the environmental situation a moral imperative in the film, and some aspects of the solution are political. Last night on television he called it a spiritual imperative. This made me think of the Principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and how they relate to the Beatitudes. All of a sudden, the moral and the spiritual nature of our care for the earth become clear. The balance of freedom and responsibility in how we live our lives on the earth (the common good, human dignity, stewardship, etc.) touch the deepest recesses of the human person


Congratulations to Hollywood for making another film that matters. Kudos.


Awareness                   Reflection                     Dialogue                       Action


Make up the process Gore implicitly asks us to enter into; this is also the process of theological reflection. Whether we believe in God or not, the earth is ours to save or to lose.


(PS Prophets don't tell the future; they teach, they tell the truth. But in point of fact, prophets are not listened to in their own country; and no one likes them very much because their teachings ... afflict the comfortable.)

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Prairie Home Companion, A

Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) reflects on his job while at the local diner. He is the backstage doorkeeper (and seeker of all things secret and potentially sinister within because he used to be a private eye and assiduously maintains his persona) at the Fitzgerald Theater in  St. Paul, MN.


The Fitzgerald Theater, named for native son and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, is home to “The Prairie Home Companion”, a weekly radio variety show. No one is supposed to know - but everyone does – that this is the show’s final performance. The theater has been sold and the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) cometh to take possession.


The show, on stage and back stage, is populated by eccentric and very talented people: G.K. (Garrison Keeler) leads the troupe, hosts the show, chats, and sings. The Johnson Sisters are singers, too; Yolanda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) used to be on the county fair circuit and are getting a little long in the tooth for that kind of life. Yolanda and G.K. had a thing going a while back. Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) are the Old Trailhands; they may once have been cowboys – who really knows? But they sure sing good. Lola (Lindsay Lohan) is Yolanda’s Goth daughter who writes creepy poetry about suicide. Molly (Maya Rudolph) is the pregnant producer that Guy pays too much attention to, and the ghost (Virginia Madsen), or angel, of the Prairie Home past, has no name. Doesn’t every theater have its ghost – or angel?



Written by Garrison Keiller, the Companion is directed by Robert Altman who can plumb the layers of eccentricity and intelligence in actors in ways guaranteed to entertain (e.g. Gosford Park, Cookie’s Fortune). That Companion is Minnesota-centric is expected and the lyrics of many of the songs have been changed to honor this most dominant star of the show.


The singing is wonderful; Meryl Streep, who studied voice and has sung in other films (Postcards from the Edge and Ironweed), is awesome; Lily Tomlin less so, yet the two make an excellent pairing. Watch for Lindsay Lohan; as annoying as she is in real life, she breaks out and belts out “Frankie and Johnny” so we’ll remember she really does have talent. Harrelson and Reilly as the cowboys are bawdy, earthy and they excel. “Bad Jokes”, written by Keillor, epitomizes what I mean. You’ll laugh and groan at the same time. As for G.K., his homey demeanor, run-on song spoofs, and musical commercials get the live audience going. Yes, the audience is live in the film, but it’s really us. The Guys All-Star Show Band is a hit, led by Grammy winner Richard Dworsky who has been a regular on the show since 1986.


Kevin Kline as the noir-ish voice over doesn’t really fit because he’s a bit of a nutter, but then most of these characters don’t “fit”. They are all so … individual. Yet, they bring their good hearts and odd diversity together to create a show that enlightens the isolated life on the prairie through sound.

I think there’s a link to be made between the characters and the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote about the despair of the young and gave us heroes and heroines who were handsome, beautiful, captivating, and tragic.

The Fitzgerald Theater has been home to the real radio show since 1978. According to the production notes, the show began on July 6, 1974 and currently has an audience of 4.3 million listeners on 550 public radio stations, America One, and the Armed Forces Network in Europe and theFar East. In 2004, the Library of Congress added the show’s debut broadcast to the nation’s registry of historic sound. (I didn’t know the U.S. had a registry of historic sound – did you? The National Recording Registry’s web site is

There’s also a home-spun theology in the film expressed here and there but especially through the ghost/angel. She’s a messenger about the inevitability of death … in a mediated world. The ever-after show is directed by God, and it must go on.


A Prairie Home Companion, film, or radio show, offers insight on the role of radio in American media history and culture, and by extension in many cultures of the world still without access to television for news and entertainment. Thinking about this film after, I remembered a ninth-grade English teacher who encouraged us to read Rose Wilder Lane’s Let the Hurricane Roar (1943). It was about a young mother who, left with her two children in a sod hut on the prairie during a terrible blizzard while her husband went to get food, struggled with the isolation, and survived. True it was set in the days before radio, but isolation is isolation, and the human voice can be a lifeline, a saving grace.  I think this movie may be an awards contender, especially the sound track.


A Prairie Home Companion is quirky, earthy fun. If you listen to the actual radio show that the film mirrors as some quasi alternate universe, you’ll recognize G.K., Guy, Lefty, and Dusty from the regular cast, including performers Sue Scott (she plays Donna) and Tim Russell (who plays Al) and some who are themselves. I would almost call the film enchanting, but it tilts a tad too much for that. It will, however, make you smile, even if you’re not from Minnesota.

Monday, June 5, 2006

The Omen: 666

                                                    The Omen:

Popcorn Theology and Devil’s Food


            Fans of the 1976 cult classic film The Omen about the birth of the anti-Christ, that is, the devil, will probably like the new, enhanced version to open world-wide in theaters on June 6 (6.6.06), a date that coincides with the calendar’s numerical line-up and commemorates the anniversary of the original film’s release.


            Apocalyptic-centric screenwriter David Seltzer (who also penned last year’s miniseries Revelations) derives the premise for The Omen on a literal and contemporary interpretation of the book of Revelation, especially Chapter 13: 11-18:


Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.” (NRSV).


The Story


When U.S. diplomat Robert Thorn’s (Leiv Schreiber) son dies at birth, a priest convinces him to take another boy instead, an orphan born at the same time. The priest convinces Thorn that this is an act of charity and Thorn agrees not to tell his wife Katherine (Julia Stiles). Two years later, the family is transferred to London, where they settle in a large manor house. Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), however, does not attach to his mother and this upsets Katherine. Inexplicable things start happening.  Damien sees a large black dog; he disappears from his parents while out walking. Damien’s nanny jumps to her death while professing her love for the little boy. When a new nanny, Mrs. Baylock (played in a most menacing and creepy manner by Mia Farrow of Rosemary’s Baby fame), appears without being hired, even Thorn starts to get suspicious and nervous. A photographer sees Thorn meeting with a mysterious priest, Fr. Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite), who warns Thorn of the need to accept Jesus as his personal savior and to receive the body and blood of Christ to ward off the terrible things to come.


And come they do.


Popcorn Theology


The Omen is cinematic schlock built on a dispensational theological premise of the end times that a relative minority of evangelical Christians believe. Though the end of the world didn’t occur in 1976 when the original film was released or at the turn of the century in 2000, not to worry; there’s still time. 


In line with pop culture theology, The Omen gathers its visuals from the Catholic Church and its theology and religious dialogue from the Plymouth Brethren, a fringe evangelical Protestant denomination. The Plymouth Brethren began in Ireland in the late 1820’s and migrated to the UK soon after. The Plymouth Brethren’s faith system is driven by the proximate coming of the end times and is essentially non-creedal. The most well known films and books of this genre are the Left Behind franchise (see Scripture, Rapture and Apocalypse: 'Left Behind: World at War' )


Fr. Brennan wants to marry Catholicism and dispensational Protestantism when he yells at Thorn: “You must accept Jesus as your personal savior and eat his body and drink his blood to be saved.” But there is no personal life transformation involved in this formula, there is no charity, no sign of a benevolent God anywhere. There is only the crucifix, thousands of them, as the magic wand that may rid Thorn – and the world - of the devil and the apocalypse.


                            The reporter and Thorn in Fr. Brennan's room

Devil’s Food


            The one thing The Omen may do for audiences is to convince them that the devil exists; Seltzer certainly dishes up enough evidence for this throughout the film. Other films have certainly tried to help us believe in the devil and perhaps scare us into being good. (The Exorcist, 1973, and more recently with the annoying Constantine in 2005 and the more thoughtful The Exorcism of Emily Rose, also in 2005).  (See Beat the Devil: Exorcism and Hollywood


              The problem with Seltzer’s devil is that he is blamed for all the evils in the world leading to the apocalypse. There is not even a hint of personal or social responsibility for wars or the natural disasters, such as global warming which may be attributed to how humans abuse the earth. No one is in control of Seltzer’s universe, not diplomats or politicians, not individuals, not the priests (only Catholic clergy are presented to us and they are either evil or ineffectual) and certainly not God – just the devil. The allusion to the death of Pope John Paul II at the end seemed very distasteful to me, as did the strong insinuation that the Catholic Church is just plain superstitious.




I received a call today (May 31) from a reporter with a city newspaper in Florida asking if I had heard any rumblings of fear among Catholics about the coming date of June 6, 2006 (6.6.06) cited in the book of Revelation as a recipe for disaster. To date, I have not. She wanted to know if there is any Catholic teaching on these numbers. Alas, I think I disappointed her when I explained that the book of Revelation was written for the Christian community almost 2000 years ago to give them courage during times of persecution and trial – and that Catholics do not interpret the Scriptures literally. The book of Revelation is of the biblical apocalyptic genre (see the book of Daniel), and is interpreted accordingly.


No Suspense, Only Jolts


After the screening, one guest filmmaker observed that the film had no suspense; it only offered a series of jolts, albeit very effective ones. A suicide, a beheading, and a murder make for grisly viewing.


People go to films like The Omen because they are already scared, the horror-meister Wes Craven said a few years ago during an interview with Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) at the City of Angels Film Festival. I think Craven is correct. And if people want to assuage their fears about terrifying world events maybe they can do so with this contemporary remake of The Omen. This version is very close to the original that starred Gregory Peck as Thorn and Lee Remick as Katherine, though some new features have been carefully added. I thought Seltzer (or the director) was winking at us by casting Mia Farrow from Rosemary’sBaby (1968); as the Mary Poppins from hell. She was truly very effective. 



The film is very rich visually with high production values. The patterns added to the feeling of beauty or order but we find out soon enough that these are visual illusions. The colors, tones, and hues lend themselves very well to creating creepiness and fear. The whiteness (some psychoanalytic film theorists believe this means madness) and dream sequences create the psychological dimension of fear.


Yet there are so many clichés: too much rain and lightening, the lights not working, people moving around in the dark, black dogs, and watering flowers in high heels while standing on a chair over a precipice. The snowy terrain near Rome in the month of June did offer a glimpse of Dante’s version of the lowest pit of hell which is frozen. Some of The Omen’s original iconic scenes have endured and reappear here, as they did in the End of Days in 1999.


Split-pea soup not-with-standing, I think The Exorcist is the best devil film out there. The Omen, instead, is a pop culture icon and 6.6.06 is providing a marketing dream-come-true for Twentieth Century Fox.


As with The Da Vinci Code, most people will agree that The Omen “it’s just a movie”. And that’s true. Yet movies influence us on many levels and all of them deserve to be talked about, questioned, and critiqued by each person in the audience. Questions we can ask are: in whose interest the film was made, what kind of reality does it construct, and whose point of view prevails?


Thirty years on, The Omen is searching for a new audience to devour it, and they probably will.


P.S. Today, June 5, I was speaking with a Norbertine priest and I asked him if he had run into anyone who was impressed with the 6.6.06 numbers. He laughed and said that all the Norbertine priests are - June 6th is the feast of St. Norbert. Happy feast day!