October 9, 2015


Hey Miami! 

"Media Apostle: The Father James Alberione Story" 

is showing October 17, 12:15pm 

Cinepolis--Coconut Grove 3015 Grand Ave. Miami, FL 33133

at the John Paul II Film Festival!


Buy ticket here:

September 26, 2015


I'm declaring the riveting and flawless "Pawn Sacrifice" (the story of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, played with acting genius by Tobey Maguire) the best film of 2015. This film has it all: high drama, low drama, human drama, international intrigue, unbeatable odds, fierce competition, poignancy, USA vs. Russia, an alternately elegant and rockin' soundtrack, issues of mental health, and one of the most realistic screen priests ever enacted. Here's hoping it will not be overlooked during awards season. (Director Edward Zwick also did "Glory," and "Blood Diamond.")

The engaging trailer convinced me I needed to see this slice of Cold War history that I knew very little about (I would have flamed out on a "Bobby Fischer" Jeopardy category). I also dearly love playing chess, and am always interested in how priests and nuns are authentically captured (or not) by Hollywood.


Bobby Fischer, born in 1943 in Chicago, raised in Brooklyn, New York, was of Russian-Jewish descent. His mother had Communist leanings, and raised him and his sister by herself. At a young age, his giftedness for chess became apparent as did his obsession with the game. The film doesn't start us off with Bobby and a chessboard, but rather his milieu, the news of the times and a crisis point in his adult life. From there we flashback and proceed chronologically, with never a dull moment, which is quite an accomplishment since we're talking chess here. How do you make a film about a "sport" where two people sit in taut silence? Chess makes golf, tatting (lace, not ink), and croquet look positively vertigo-inducing. Through skillful angles, edits, pacing and a masterful layering of multiple sights and sounds (without ever being too busy), and some of the most mature dialogue in recent memory, the filmmakers succeed effortlessly and with aplomb, and never hype it up just to get and keep our attention. (Screenwriter Stephen Knight wrote the jaw-dropping "Locke"--not to be confused with lockjaw.)


"Bobby has problems," says Fr. Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard)--Bobby's trusted friend, fellow chessmaster and chess fanatic--when approached by a U.S. government operative, Paul Marshall (the lost-deep-in-the-role Michael Stuhlbarg), posing as a lawyer/agent who wants to use the apolitical Bobby as a "pawn" in the "war of perception" with the Soviets. Fr. Bill becomes aware of the "lawyer's" true identity, but it's never clear if he informs Bobby or if Bobby becomes aware on his own. (Fischer is portrayed as paranoid anyway, thinking he was being spied on by all sorts of entities--and he might have been partially right, of course.) In the film, Bobby also suffers from acute hearing and an autism-like sensitivity to sound, especially when preparing for or playing a chess game.

Bobby plays into the hands of both the Americans and the Russians, because ever since he was a child, he wanted to play the Russians, the best in the business. But although Marshall is trying to use him (and the degree of deception is unclear), Fischer was, in actuality, doing what he loved, what he wanted to do. Known for his ego, arrogance, ambition and erratic behavior, Fischer was smart enough to demand a monetary cut of what everyone else was making off his fame. He also demanded conditions that would favor his peevish powers of concentration.


There's one marvelous scene (and the filmmakers could have given us more than one of this type of scene but wisely refrained) where Fischer verbalizes the narrative of the battle going on on the chessboard. Which is really and truly what is happening. If you play chess at all, you know this. In general, the filmmakers went nice and light on all kinds of chess metaphors they could have burdened the film with.

When Bobby begins to crack under various pressures as he movies up the ranks of chess tournaments to face the great Russian world-champion, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), he makes excuses, blames others and fails to show up for matches. (Mathematics and chess seem to be professions and avocations fraught with madness. But the question is: which comes first? At a certain lighter moment in the film, Boris looks as "over the edge" as Bobby.) The candy-ingesting, cigarette-smoking and not-beyond-profanity-using Fr. Bill is pretty much always there to encourage Fischer and make sure that he is not wholesalely exploited. What does Father get out of this? He loves the thrill of the chase as much as Bobby. But he always sees him and treats him as a person. However--and this might sound strange--he protects Bobby as a chess player first. He knows that "without chess, Bobby is nothing" (meaning Bobby thinks he is nothing without chess). The mutual understanding between Fischer and Lombardy is really what Fischer needed more than anything, but of course, in the film--even friendship was no match for the ravages of Fischer's increasingly manifesting mental illness.


I believe that Fischer's most salient victory was to keep it all about the game. To keep it all about chess, which for him was to keep it all about life (his own life and life in general) and "truth." He refused to be detoured by fame, money, politics or any other considerations. He was the purest of purists. There is so much that is humanly triumphant about this film.

Sarsgaard's inhabiting of a sardonic, taciturn, wry, serious-minded and self-possessed priest who is nonetheless completely at ease in the world is just grand. I know priests like this, and I hope you do, too.

Like the "based on a true story" films "A Perfect Storm" and "American Sniper," I really had no idea of the final outcome of Bobby Fischer's story as I watched. So I found the Epilogue shocking, arresting and poignant.

The issue of mental health looms large in "Pawn Sacrifice" and is treated with great delicacy, compassion and forthrightness. It's a contest the film imagines Bobby didn't win, but one he never stopped fighting.


--I share Bobby's love of silence.

--Chess is soooooooo addictive.

--The film is stylish but never for the sake of style alone. All in the service of the story.

--How cool is it when the soundtrack incorporates the clicks of the chess clock into one song?

--I am not at all a Toby Maguire fan, but wow.

--Beneath it all, Fischer is still a quintessential New Yorker.

--In real life, Kissinger would never play chess with Brezhnev, because chess reveals how you think.

--The stakes were so high.

--As great a victory as it was for an American to beat a Russian at the mind game of chess (in 1972)--what went down in 1980 was even better. :)

--Some of the meat and ethos of the game in this film. Much to ponder.

--It's hard not to admire someone's total dedication to something (good).

--Fischer’s very brief visit to a prostitute (we see nothing) actually de-glamorizes the transaction. Fischer is much more interested and excited about chess.

--Fischer's purported last words: "Nothing is as healing as the human touch." (Theology of the Body!) For a man who lived in his head, that says a lot.

--Keen statement about a boy needing a father. Single Mom won't tell Bobby who his father is: "What does it matter?" Bobby starts sleeping at the chess club as a teen, parts ways with his Mom.

--Fischer and Spassky. It seems these two men rose above it ALL.

--Watch the movie first, then read this Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Fischer  and this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Lombardy

--Check out this great review (that devotes 3 paragraphs to Fr. Bill Lombardy's character): http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2015/09/24/pawn-sacrifice-sees-world-war-iii-on-a-chess-board-review.html

--Here's my review all spiffed up on Life Teen website: http://lifeteen.com/blog/catholic-movie-review/catholic-movie-reviews-pawn-sacrifice/

September 20, 2015


Got in a Facebook conversation about this film. An incredible film, incredibly well done all around, and a great statement about news media and media in general and where it's all going today. (Great for a Media Literacy discussion!)

September 10, 2015


"90 Minutes in Heaven" is the screen version of a book  by the same name that came out several years ago. It is a memoir, a firsthand account of a Christian pastor's near-death experience. The book is excellent. The film? Far from it. In fact, it fails pretty miserably as a film, and also in doing justice to this incredible story. Granted, this was difficult to make into a film because so much of the drama was internal, lacking action or activity of any kind: After a horrific car crash that left Pastor Don Piper dead, the bulk of the story is his long, slow, excruciatingly painful recovery. Notwithstanding this challenge, the film is excruciatingly boring and unintriguing.


One of the film's main flaws is the casting: Hayden Christensen as Pastor Don Piper, and Kate Bosworth as Eva Piper, his wife. Christensen looks like a kid dressed up in his father's toupé, moustache and best business suit. I can do a better male Southern drawl. It was truly comical. I have seen many a high school play where any student could have bested this feeble thespianizing. And that moustache. No matter where he is: preaching a sermon, being declared dead in wreckage or undergoing rehab in a hospital bed, the squirrely and distracting moustache abides: always in creepy pristine shape. It almost has a life of its own.

Kate Bosworth*--looking and acting like a beautiful wax mannequin or an overly-Botoxed model--shows exactly zero emotion through everything (except that one time when she briefly slams her hands up and down on the steering wheel of her car). There is also exactly zero chemistry between pastor and wife.

Did the filmmakers simply not know what to do with Christians? And a man of the cloth at that? Piper and his wife are not even one-dimensional. They are half-dimensional. Yes, it's that bad. They actually relate to one another the way Amish are depicted interacting: extremely formal and duty-driven. I expected some "thee's" and "thou's" to escape their lips. You may question, as I did, Eva's momentous decision on Don's behalf that becomes a tremendous source of physical torture. It almost felt like some kind of revenge.


Two parts of the film that were done well were the ominous beginning leading up to the crash, and--believe it or not--the depiction of heaven. Most films make heaven utterly cringe-worthy, but by focusing on warmly glowing but otherwise normal-looking, normally-dressed, normal-acting people (no stark white backgrounds or stabs at showing us Jesus) we begin to realize that "love one another" is really what life (and afterlife)  is all about. Don meets family, friends, acquaintances and strangers as he tells us who they are. It's really quite wonderful. It's an aspect of heaven that I think many of us picture in our mind's eye, but don't see in movies.

However, for just about everything else, "Heaven Is For Real" is a much better film about a near-death experience (my review: http://hellburns.blogspot.ca/2014/05/the-movie-heaven-is-for-real-based-on.html#.VePN7fZViko ). Like "Heaven Is For Real," "90 Minutes in Heaven" ends with us getting to see the real Don Piper, which is rather unspectacular.


The palette is perpetually rather hazy and dim. There are two gaping plot holes (not to be confused with potholes) and a sore, crying need for editing interminably long scenes where nothing is happening. I was not able to feel Don's pain in the film, but it was palpable in the book.

I would love to know why the filmmakers and actors took on this project. Was is a noble purpose? Well then, a noble but awful attempt. Was it simply for the money? (The book was a major best-seller.) Well then, it shows. Sorry to be harsh, but I gotta call 'em like I see 'em. As one of my Sisters said: "Maybe some books just shouldn't be made into movies."

*who is married to film's director

September 6, 2015


I'm not putting the actual trailer here cuz it's too dang S-E-R-I-O-U-S.
This isn't terribly funny either, but at least you get an idea what the film is about.

"The War Room" is a winning film about prayer. A film about prayer? How do you make such a thing? Why would you make such a thing? Who would make such a thing? Obviously, the Kendrick Brothers are at it again ("Facing Giants," "Fireproof," "Courageous"). "War Room" is their best yet. It's definitely a film about prayer, but in the context of a troubled marriage with a meddling older wisdom figure (Miss Clara played by Karen Abercrombie) who lends a smidge of narration and lots of pragmatic advice. That's the thing with the Kendricks' films. They stand alone as solid entertainment (and not "message films" per se), but they leave with you the most practical examples of what to do in your own life.


Tony (T. C. Stallings) and Elizabeth (Priscilla Shirer) and their adorable daughter, Danielle (Alena Pitts), are living a cold, hard existence under the same roof (that is, when Tony is even home). Something's gotta give. Enter Miss Clara, whose house Elizabeth, a real estate agent, is selling. On the surface, Miss Clara is a sweet, doddering old woman, but underneath she is a shrewd, don't-mess-with-me, Jesus-filled overcomer who gets all up in Elizabeth's business and begins mentoring her.

Things are not exactly as they seem. People are not exactly as they seem. When you think you have some of the characters figured out, there will be reveals that only make each character more and more true to life. You will recognize your own habits of thought and "stuck-in-a-rut" patterns of behavior that are all too painfully true to our own lives. Miss Clara unlocks doors to new ways of thinking and acting that are more in accord with reality, make sense, and yield results.


Marriage and family have been underlying themes in the Kendricks' last two films ("Fireproof": unconditional love, "Courageous": fatherhood), and now: how to let God truly be the Lord of your marriage, your family, your home and your life. But the Kendricks never sugar-coat anything. They go there. They get into the nitty grits of people's lives and never offer easy "Just give your life to Jesus!" "Let go and let God!" "God will bless you if you just...!" solutions.

The genius of "War Room" is manifold. Just the thought of "a film about prayer" could make the holiest Christian pastor tremble with boredom. The scenes and dialogue sometimes live on the edge of a deep plunge into "hokey ravine"--but that never happens (only highly-trained and talented professionals can do this, do not attempt this in your first film, kids).


"War Room" is a clinic in filmmaking. So much of today's filmmaking is just lazy. "War Room" is anything but. It's tight, precise, intentional, with razor-sharp timing. The acting and cinematography is impeccable. Reaction shots are perfectly timed, perfectly executed. The style is almost soap opera with so many intimate close-ups, and yet half the time, the poignant moment erupts in unexpected humor. Masterful. The visual gags are laugh-out-loud hysterical (as are many of the verbal jokes). "War Room" is gravity and levity together at one and the same time. Like life with God generally is.

How does the Christianity in the film jive with Catholicism? The Kendricks are Baptist ministers in Georgia (with a delightful Southern sensibility and sense of humor), but they keep strictly Protestant tenets out of their films for the most part.

The Word of God shines in this film: our need to engage and pray with the Scriptures, to stand on God's promises, to beg God in prayer at times, to make the Bible central in our homes. Our characters are nominal Christians who must learn how to pray. Daily. From the heart.


In case we've forgotten that prayer is also spiritual warfare, that we need to bring our personal and other battles to prayer and let God fight for us and those whom we're praying for? "The War Room" is our refresher course. "The battle belongs to the Lord." How will this film jumpstart or change your daily prayer?


The film takes up the themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, restitution (rarely seen in films!), marriage, family, prayer and mercy. It's the perfect film for the Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, beginning December 8.

Bring the whole family to see this film. More than once.


--Theology of the Body? All over it. Marriage. I also like the incarnational, concrete idea of an actual "inner room" or prayer place in one's house.

--This film also shows the beauty of sincerity. Sincerity is so underrated by irony and skepticism today.

--Snappy, crisp dialogue.

--So. Many. Quotable. Quotes.

In this film you will see:
--a grown man jumping rope like a little girl
--a woman taking authority over Satan in her home (Christian feng shui)
--a woman with a, um, recurring foot odor problem

--The usual excuses! "How's your prayer life?" "We're like most people. We're busy. We can't get to church every Sunday, but we're spiritual people."

--I really needed this film.

--Very unfortunately, the trailer is soooooo serious. This film is serious AND very, very funny. It's the kind of funny where after the audience's first gale of laughter subsides, there's a second wave because we're still just so tickled by the joke. The element of surprise is heavily employed in the humor.

--Watch the transformation simply in Elizabeth's facial muscles when she realizes what God's part is and what her part is in relating to her husband. That's acting. And this woman--in real life--is a non-actor and this is her first film. Wha??? Yes. The Kendricks often use non-actors in main roles in their films (a tradition in cinema that Italian Neo-Realism employed effectively).

--T. C. Stallings used to play football in the CFL for the Calgary Stampeders.

--It just dawned on me that Elizabeth and Miss Clara are really the main characters here. And yet this doesn't feel like a chick flick at all. I wonder if people were hounding the Kendricks to make a film like "Courageous" for women. Maybe this is it!

--Good balance of male/female authority in the film. Elizabeth starts the spiritual warfare and kicks the devil out of their home (even that's funny). Prayer changes Elizabeth (it's not a magic wand) and therefore changes the whole family dynamic. Tony is on his own journey, but now Elizabeth knows how to help him.

--The one big disappointment for me was the attempted robbery scene. The Kendricks are really great at action scenes, but this was incredibly sloppy and fake. They really should have put more time and thought into it. It could have injected a lot of tension and been a great use of a red herring. There was also a tad of heavy preachiness in two places (by my count), and some unnecessary break-with-reality-spiritual-trance scenes with Tony toward the end, that didn't really work. The super-Americana altar call at the end would have been so much more effective if it had been globalized.

August 29, 2015


"It can share my bed!"

"I can hold it!"

"Is it really in there?" (20x)


Looking for a retreat house in the greater Boston area for your weekend retreat?

Look no further than beautiful St. Thecla's Retreat House (owned by the Daughters of St. Paul)
in historic Billerica (77 Dudley Rd.).

--75 individual bedrooms
--spacious chapel
--full-service kitchen
--large dining room

--large conference room with screen
--several smaller meeting rooms and parlors
--ample parking
--2 floors with elevator
--country roads and woods to explore

(There are no nuns or staff, so you will have to make your own arrangements for cooking, etc.)

Please contact: Sr. Sophie Stewart, FSP for 2016 dates: sstewart@paulinemedia.com 617-462-8905

Nun not included.

Nuns not included

Nuns not included.

Nuns not included.

Nuns not included.

August 28, 2015


Remember the big award winner this year: "Boyhood"? Well, meet "Girlhood." In French, it's actually "Bande de Filles" (Band of Girls), but the English (subtitled) very smartly became "Girlhood."

Marieme is a 16-year-old girl living in the projects in France with her abusive older brother, her charwoman mother who is hardly ever home, and her two younger sisters.

Marieme gets involved with three female highschool dropouts. She is nicknamed "Vic" (for "victory") because her best friend in the little gang gives her a necklace (presumably stolen) with that name on it. They get into mild shenanigans and dream big dreams. This easy-going film (written and directed by Celine Sciamma) takes its time and there never seems to be anything dire or truly sad or threatening going on--partly because the Fab Four always have each other. Emotions (except for youthful exuberance) are a bit repressed, or maybe that's because these girls have to be tough. There also seems to be a kind of doom about these girls without many opportunities.

To see this all-girl-all-the-time camaraderie was refreshing. (There are so few non-silly gal pal films.) I also liked the sense of a strong womanhood that pervades. But strong to what ultimate purpose? Most of the guys are kind of bums, so there's a little statement being made there. Not blatant, but when you start adding it up....

Vic has a few adventures with her new friends, gets closer to her boyfriend, plans her own path (or as her friend Lady coaches her: "Do what you want"), but Marieme/Vic is always restless.

My main question about "Girlhood" is: did we ever really get to know this girl throughout the film? (Granted, she's a teen and her personality is still developing.) She is tender toward her family and friends, but can be mean toward others. It was great having our protagonist be a "poor girl," but I never really bought that she or her friends were that poor. Their personal and other trappings always looked quite comfortable. We were just supposed to believe it. I would have been more engaged and invested in the film if it actually was a little more gritty.

Two loose ends, for me, were: no mention at all of a father, and there are four kids. And the mother simply fades out of the picture all together (not sure if we hear her voice at the very end or not).

The ending, in my humble opinion, might be a bit of a (feminist's?) dream. Vic rebels against all available options, but she's still going to make it. Somehow. Good luck to her. And who am I to say she isn't going to make it? But it was a Hollywood, Disney ending. If you just "believe".... And, of course, we need to remember, this is a French film. Stubbornly impressionistic and whimsical.

August 17, 2015


Lately, many have tried to recreate the classic yet mod yet buttoned down yet swinging Cold War 60's. Guy Ritchie's stylish and tasty "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." succeeds with flying colors and begs to be seen on the big screen. This film is as much a comedy as it is an action flick. An American spy (a dapper, smooth and scene-commanding Henry Cavill) is teamed with a Russian spy (the charming, criminally underused comedic genius, Armie Hammer). Throw two femme fatales into the mix: Gaby, "Ex Machina's" Alicia Vikkander (who seemed a bit out of her league here or just lacked confidence), and Elizabeth Debicki (a vicious villainess who makes Cruella de Ville look like Shirley Temple).

The plot is thick and zesty. The United States and Russia have teamed up to stop a nuclear bomb from being made and sold by an Italian shipping cartel with Nazi connections, helmed by the evil Victoria (Debicki). The mission is enlivened by an endless competition between the two respective spies: the Soviet and the cowboy. An East German woman (Vikkander) is recruited as bait to help find her father, the scientist forced to create the bomb under duress. Find the father? Find the bomb. This perfect set-up of three mismatched nationals creates lots of friction from the start.

There aren't too many crazy twists and turns, but you do have to stay on your toes to follow the wordy exposition. The sure-footed pace takes its time and leaves room for tongue-in-cheek, kitschy dialogue, lots of deadpanning, and always a darn good time. Profanity is nil. It's not needed. Too much grownup, sophisticated fun is being had. The predicaments and chases are fresh, and the whole film masterfully avoids clichés.

Being that Guy Ritchie is British, you know that Merry Old England will have to put in an appearance at some point in this League of Nations caper--in the form of Hugh Grant. All the actors keep up the grand conceit with great aplomb. Hammer and Debicki are still in their 20's but have old soul acting chops.

"U.N.C.L.E." mixes the gimmicks of yesteryear filmmaking (crazy camera angles, split screens, quick zooms and blocky typefaces) with today's digital abilities. "U.N.C.L.E." sports one of the best soundtracks I've ever experienced in a film. It's a character in the film. It's loud and lush and choreographed, but never just plunked in. It makes the film feel like a music video in places. Although blaring and mixed with electronica, the beats and rhythms and songsters featured in the soundtrack are always and only utterly human. You never feel like you're being ground up by a music machine.

It's truly PG-13 except for one fleeting almost-nude shot of a woman that was totally unnecessary in the midst of classy relationships between the sexes and mild innuendo. The torture section was a little too long and dark for the tone of this film, even though it ended on a much lighter note.

The ending (which leads directly into a sequel) actually has a jovial message of peace that isn't too far-fetched. "U.N.C.L.E." may be just a fun romp, but it also has a generous helping of heart and soul.

August 14, 2015


Looking for a tight suspense thriller? Look no further than "The Gift," the weak-titled, but strongly-executed directorial debut of the ever-fascinating Joel Edgerton (who also wrote and stars). The trailer is not a trailer but a spoiler, so don't even watch it. You'll know far too much at the outset. The one thing I didn't know even after watching the trailer is that Joel Edgerton was the mysterious, creepy bad guy. Edgerton is a changeling, so you've seen him in several movies, but if you don't do your preparatory movie homework or stay for the credits, you may not even realize who he is ("The Odd Life of Timothy Green," "Zero Dark Thirty," "The Great Gatsby," "Exodus"). I first became aware of him in "The Great Gatsby" where he was acting everyone else under the table. I since discovered he has a fierce fan following (which I have joined). But on to the film.

In actuality, "The Gift" is a psychological thriller, a character study of people who are relatable and not over-the-top. It's an intimate drama among the high-powered and ambitious Simon (the always on point Jason Bateman), his apprehensive wife, Robyn (the luminous Rebecca Hall who, of necessity, carries the entire movie with her every blink and wistful twist of her mouth), and the gift-bearing interloper, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), who, like a bad penny, never seems to go away.

The movie begins with a supposed fresh start for Simon and Robyn. They move into their stylish California home high in the hills with their dog and baby paraphernalia (but there's no baby or pregnancy, so the waters are troubled from the get-go). Robyn's face alone tells us she is not 100% at ease. With anything. The modernist architecture featuring outside walls of glass from floor to ceiling make the perfect ambience for peeping Toms (or peeping Gordos), and the perfect metaphor for the  false transparency of all our lives. We think we know what's going on. But do we?

The saddest truth in "The Gift" is the way men lie to women, or rather often just keep them in the dark. The way men talk over women's heads to each other. How it's really about male competition and women are the spoils of war. Robyn is greatly loved, cherished and respected, she's just not part of the conversation or privvy to the bigger picture. But Robyn's utter honesty and integrity shine through. She may seem a bit passive, naive, timid or unsure of herself at first (which she might be), but it's also her sensitivity, humility, kindness and uprightness that knows something isn't right--and she patiently sits with that till the truth comes out--well, most of it.

There are a few non-sequiturs and hard-to-follow plot points, but they don't majorly detract from the overall story. You will turn the ending over and over in your mind, telling yourself that the supposed dilemma of the ending can be fairly easily resolved--which our filmmakers may realize. However, the ending still works well on many levels.

There is an extreme dearth of music which rivets our attention on the actors' every move and word. When the music kicks in, it's minimalistic, modern, and the dischordant, grating, scathing violins are perfect. The color cast is today's browns and blues which seems to work well for darker fare.

Reviews are calling this film "chilling," but I wouldn't go that far, it's more "consistently disturbing and uncomfortable." We are never allowed to relax. There are no easy moments except for a handful of quick laughs. Even though there are a few jolt-in-your-seat moments, the real horror is what ordinary people are capable of. People's philosophies of life are revealed, some explicitly. What happens when we stick unswervingly to a rotten philosophy of life? How responsible are we for how we shape, affect and possibly ruin other people's lives? Who is truly the insecure loser--the bullied or the bully?


--When I first saw the title "The Gift" on IMDB and Fandango, I thought it was a Christian film.

--Watched this film with Ma who had her usual startling and interesting insights. There was a lot to talk about on the way home. (At the first F-word, even though I warned her, Ma shouts out "Whoa!" in the theater. She laughed a few times in the wrong places, too.)

--Rebecca Hall is a Brit, Joel Edgerton is an Aussie. Both do believable American accents.

July 28, 2015


The new movie, "I Am Potential," is based on the true story of the Hughes Family whose son was born without eyes and unable to walk. I almost didn't want to even tell you that, because I had the experience of coming at the story cold, and was hit by the element of surprise at every turn. However, there's no way to review this film without setting up a few essential background facts. If you've seen the film (with Cloris Leachman) "The Woman Who Willed A Miracle," you are in for a similar, heartfelt, triumphant, soaring ride.

The film begins with a rather strained relationship between new parents, a sports-obsessed father, Patrick (Burgess Jenkins), and doting mother, Patricia (Evansville, Indiana's own Jama Williamson!) When the extent of their son's disabilities come to light and then become a daily reality, the marriage and paternal commitment is stretched even further.

SPOILER ALERT: I'm just going to have to tell you a little bit of the plot here, but the joy of watching the film (it is a joy) will be the well-executed details. Do you want to witness a conversion? The depths of a father's love? Observe Dad slowly bonding with his little namesake--who will never be an athlete--but whom Dad recognizes has a love and talent for music from his youngest years. These scenes could melt boulders, and can be applied to any Dad who has the eyes to see and appreciate who his child really is, to give up trying to fulfill his own ideas and dreams through his progeny. I really thought Dad was going to walk out for the whole first part of the movie. Just the opposite.

Patrick John and Patricia go on to have two more boys (able-bodied). Their firstborn, Patrick Henry (Jimmy Bellinger) grows into an optimistic young man with an upbeat disposition who simply never feels sorry for himself. I watched some YouTubes of the real Patrick Henry who cheerily states: "So God made me blind and unable to walk. Big deal! He gave me musical gifts!"

Even though the family has their many trials and makes many sacrifices, the love and positivity is, well, overwhelming at times. I'm not a fan of saccharine movies, but there are no "Hallmark" artificial sweeteners in "Potential." This family is really a "can-do" family. We know there are families like this out there. We know there are physically and otherwise challenged individuals out there who act like Patrick Henry: overcomers. When I found myself skeptical at different points, I realized what was happening was that this film simply showed up my own healthy stores of cynicism and limited reserves of hope! Shamed by a film!

My glowing praise does not mean that this is a perfect film. There are lulls with absolutely no dramatic suspense or tension. There are bland scenes that begin without a hook, when there is not even one question in the audience's mind (I wonder how this will get resolved? But what will happen when...?), but "Potential" is still worth every minute of eyeball time. I wouldn't classify it as a "feel good" film because it's too understated for that. It's much more an examination of fatherhood. One father's hard decision to love his son without measure, to help his son succeed the way his son wants to succeed. To be a team of two. If Patrick John Hughes isn't a reflection of God the Father, I don't know who is. (You can also watch the real Patrick John Hughes being interviewed on YouTube.)

The soundtrack can be a bit Americana-grandiose and mawkish at times. And some of the sets, scenes and dialogue actually might be a little too "Leave It To Beaver," golly-gee-whiz affable.

Patrick Hughes, Sr., reminds me of a man named Mike I met at a Blackhawks game. He had rink side season tickets. His nineteen-year-old son Mike (also a "junior") had severe autism and would go absolutely nuts (like any good Hawks' fan!) when the team scored, shouting and banging on the plexiglass for all he was worth. Mike, Sr. told me his story: "I used to think there was something wrong with him [his son], and I was ashamed of him. Then I went to Medjugorje and realized that my son is fine: there was something wrong with me. Now our relationship has totally changed and I just enjoy him."

"It's not about what you see, but how you see it."

July 11, 2015


The idea and ideology of "transhumanism": that human beings are basically just brains in containers, and that if we could just find a way to upload our brains into computers or robots or such--we could live on forever--is the subject of the new film "Self/less." It was also the subject of the recent film "Transcendence." (Incidentally, Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, is a transhumanist--that is, he holds this view of the human person and is seeking to make it happen.) The trailer to this film looked intriguing and the premise clever, but I'm sorry to report that the actual execution of the film is a shambles.

An older, powerful New York business tycoon, Damian (Ben Kingsley), has six months left to live. He lives alone and has one grown daughter whom he rarely has contact with--a fact that he begins to regret. He decides to look into a company that does "shedding" or life extension. It's all very secretive and extremely expensive, but the company's head tells him they aren't as interested in the money as they are in prolonging the existence of "the world's great minds" (eugenics, anyone?). Just what Damian has ever done for humanity (or will do in his new skin) is unclear.


The shedding process is basically putting Damian's mind/consciousness into a younger man's body (supposedly one grown in the lab). The younger man is played by Ryan Reynolds (Canada's Ben Affleck). The process goes well enough until Damian starts to have flashbacks and memories that are not his own. In order to keep these flashbacks at bay, he must take pills provided for him by the company, who dole them out very sparingly. It starts to become very clear that Damian wasn't told, and presumably didn't ask, all that "shedding" entails and what the future really holds for him. The company is ever-present in his life and we start to see that he is practically owned by them. He is a guinea pig, an experiment.

A woman and her little girl enter Damian's life, and he begins to realize that they are something worth living and perhaps dying for. The girl is like a stand-in for the daughter he never spent much time with, so there's a kind of redemption here. But if we only have one life to live and we refuse to repent--will we really repent in our extended life? (Failure to repent while you can is probably the worst kind of procrastination.) "It is appointed for men to die once." --Hebrews 9:27 "You are merciful to all, you overlook our sins and give us time to repent." Wisdom 11:23


The way it's presented, it doesn't seem like we are supposed to "like" this idea of shedding...however, I wonder if some people in the audience might be saying to themselves, "Yeah, I'd do that." How it actually occurs scientifically is never explained and the process (two MRI-like machines for the two bodies) is reminiscent of the 1950's sci-fi movie machines that "just do the job." By not giving us any details, it's a bit of a leap for the imagination, but the leaping doesn't stop there. The plot has as many gaps and holes as a slice of Swiss cheese. Also, important plot points are not made crystal clear and it takes us a while to catch up. The one thing you don't want audiences to keep saying to themselves over and over is: "But why don't they just...?" and I found myself repeating that internally many times.

Even though it seems we're supposed to have big misgivings about "shedding," it's stated over and over in the film that the body is a "prison" and an "empty vessel." Bad Theology of the Body! Bad Theology of the Body!

"The human body can never be reduced to mere matter. It is a spiritualized body, just as a person's spirit is so closely united to the body that they can be described as an embodied spirit" --JP2G, "Letter to Families," 19


Recent convert from atheism to Catholicism, HuffPost writer and Yale grad, Leah Libresco, had to have a "transhuman to human" conversion in her thinking:

"My two biggest obstacles were the two heresies that tempted me most: Gnosticism and Pelagianism.
Gnosticism, and its attendant hatred/suspicion of the body, has made intuitive sense to me ever since I was little. I’ve been interested primarily in the abstract and the intellectual, so I’ve tended to think of my body as the thing that carries around the real me—my mind. I wanted to keep it in good enough repair for it to not inhibit or interfere with me, but, beyond that, I saw it simply as a tool, and one I wouldn’t care about switching for an engineered, robotic one, if the opportunity ever presented itself.

Ultimately, I knew I couldn’t be both Gnostic and Catholic, and I wound up more confident that Catholicism was true than that Gnosticism was. A faith that has God deliberately make these bodies part of who we are and has his own Son come down to meet us, incarnate as we are, doesn’t look favorably on having contempt for this aspect of creation.

After I made up my mind to convert, I got sourdough starter and started baking regularly, since putting more effort than was strictly necessary into eating (rather than refueling) seemed like the most anti-gnostic thing I could do on short notice." Full interview:http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/my-journey-atheist-catholic-11-questions-leah-libresco

There is lull after lull in the action and tension, even when characters are in mortal danger. There are good isolated scenes and sequences, but the storytelling seems to get lost in these semi-detours. The woman's character is totally laughable. She is, well, a dumb brunette, and her lines are ridiculous and empty. She seems to accept all the preposterousness visited upon her extremely well. Her reactions and engagement with the drama are full of false notes. I wish I had a dollar for every time she whines: "WHAT'S GOING ON??!! IS EVERYTHING OK??!!" Another example of female air-headedness in dialogue was the stereotypical character of Damian's neglected daughter. When Damian tries to make things right with her shortly before his shedding, she spouts (for the audience's sake) these "on the nose" lines: "Sure. You were never there for me when I was growing up. You hardly ever try to get in touch with me. You think your money can solve everything."

Much of the story is predictable. I was able to keep guessing what would happen next (something I don't usually have a talent for): "I bet...yup!" so there was very little element of surprise, except for the ending which has a sizeable twist. One good takeaway was: Our choices effect others, a whole web of people, even when we think we are just making choices for ourselves. There's no such thing. Also, perhaps a film like this can give us pause: Do I accept my bodiliness, the conditions of my creatureliness, my limits? Can we accept the reality we're living in as the Creator designed it? (Satan couldn't. Adam and Eve couldn't.) Of course we want to be immortal and God wants us to be, too. But He's the Man with the plan. Do I accept God's plan? Do we even know when we're playing God anymore?

People in my audience were guffawing at super-serious moments, and a few people simply left early--I almost did, too, which is something I never do. I rarely tell people not to bother with a film, but if you're at the cinema? Keep moving past "Self/less." There's nothing to see here, folks.


--Ben Kingsley's New York accent is hideous, affected and hammy.

--Not a big screen thriller.

--Ironically, what does it really mean to be "selfless" (in Christian understanding)?

--I love how people are the evilest hitmen or victims just about to die, but...gotta fasten that seatbelt.

--I love how round after round is shot in gun battles and car chases at point blank range and no one ever gets hit.

--I actually caught myself subconsciously (is that possible?) looking for that slidebar at the bottom of a YouTube to fast forward the film! (And I was in a theater.)

--This could've been a pumpin' good ride. But it warn't.

--"You're not a savior, you're a psychopath."

June 24, 2015


"Inside Out," the new Pixar movie about Riley, an eleven-year-old girl whose world is turned upside down when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, is good, but not great. It's very much a kid's movie (with knowing asides to parents, as these films always have). When I first saw the trailer for the film, I guess I had very high expectations. I was elated that children were going to be taught about their interior life--that they even have one! Dramatizing the interior life, externalizing it, is always one of the biggest challenges in film, unlike literature which can write reams about characters' inner movements. Film can mostly only show. Film will use narration, flashbacks or other tools to let us know what a character might be thinking or feeling at a deeper level--beyond facial expressions and body language--but "Inside Out"  is taking us right inside--as a cartoon can certainly do! Factor in that Riley plays hockey? This film, thought I, must have fallen right out of heaven.

"Inside Out" is highly imaginative with eye-popping color. We spend a good deal of the movie inside Riley's brain with her five key emotions: Joy (green-female), Sadness (blue, of course-female), Anger (red-male), Disgust (Green-female), and Fear (purple-male). Not having read much about the making of this film, I'm intrigued at the thought process/research that chose/named these as the primary emotions. Joy is all by herself as Riley's sole emotion when Riley is a baby, but Sadness follows immediately when Baby Riley begins wailing. (I would actually have put Sadness or Fear first, since birth can be traumatic and babies often cry right at birth.)


Riley's brain is "Headquarters," and Joy is in charge at the control panel as she and the gang look through Riley's eyes at the action in Riley's life. "Looking through Riley's eyes" is essentially monitoring a huge screen. Memories Riley makes are turned into colored bowling-ball-sized "memory balls" that roll around in chutes and pipes in Headquarters and then get stored elsewhere. Each memory ball acts like a crystal ball with an animated GIF playing over and over in a loop. "Core memories" are the most important--happy, formative touchstones from Riley's childhood (many of them involving hockey). They are gold and must be protected at all costs.

Outside of Headquarters (that looks essentially like the Seattle Space Needle) are islands of Riley's personality: family, goofball, hockey, friendship, honesty, etc. We are treated to all kinds of hilarious manifestations and personifications of: abstract thought, long term memory, jingles that get stuck in our heads forever, imagination, dreams, nightmares, forgetfulness, the subconscious, you name it.


As far as the message kids might get about emotions? I'm sorry to report that the emotions are completely in charge. It's unclear where cognition and willpower come in. Riley never takes the reigns of her emotions (OK, she's only 11)--instead, they control her. (One movie reviewer made the comment that Riley was "choosing" Joy most of the time, but I didn't find it evident that Riley was doing the choosing.) We are made to see the worth of each emotion and the purpose they serve and how well things work when they all work together, but Riley seems like an automaton, simply and only driven by events, memories and feelings. Any kind of thought process (notwithstanding the "train of thought"--the main means of transportation in Riley's noggin) is really beside the point. There's a certain anthropology here, methinks. I know certain schools of thought (ha ha), stress that we are driven by our emotions more than anything else, or emotion associated with positive and negative experiences in our lives. And I suppose when we're young, or if we live an "unexamined," non-reflective life, we might continue to be all through our lives. I just would like to have seen more, well, thinking and reasoning. The emotions seem to be scrambling to save the day (literally) all the time.

The plan for Riley's life seems to be: let's just keep her happy, day after day, year after year, so she can have a happy life! Without giving too much away, if at a certain point in the film Joy gets annoying (even though she's fairly moderate and not terribly naive), don't worry--she'll be tempered. Sadness serves a very big purpose in our lives.


The best takeaway, perhaps, is simply what can happen when our emotions do get out of control, and how we need a full range of emotions in our lives to balance each other out. The worst thing that could happen to us is to not feel our emotions or let just one of them take over. At Riley's nadir, it really answers the question we sometimes ask ourselves: "What happens to people? What happens to people to make them so turned off on life?"

Riley's parents are wonderful: realistic and loving--a great thing to see in a film. And not only that, we get to see inside their brains once in a while, too.

Maybe I'm asking too much of this kid's film. Maybe the film had to focus on one aspect of the human person (emotions). Maybe the interplay of mind, will and heart (affectivity) is too complex for an child's animated film. I'm sure parents and kids are having great conversations about emotions, and I will bet my bottom dollar that at Junior's next meltdown, Mom and Dad are appealing to "Inside Out": "Junior, remember in the movie when...."


--The director, Peter Docter, is from Minnesota.

--It does seem the overriding theme is joy, joy, joy. (Gag me with a spoonful of sugar.)

--However, one Mom made a very good point about the film: We naturally find Joy with Sadness (and Sadness with Joy) rather than with Anger, Disgust or Fear!

--Debbie Downer has nothing on Sadness.

--Joy is sometimes more like plain old Hope.

--Paula Poundstone has such a recognizable and appealing voice. She should do a lot more voice work. The voices are cast to perfection in this film.

--All the wobbling over the abyss made me truly dizzy.

--Why does Sadness have to be chubby (that's fatism, like sexism and ageism). Why couldn't Joy be fat and happy? Pleasingly plump?

--The biggest laugh in my theater (from guys)? A look inside the teenage guy brain.