Friday, February 28, 2003


I was a party to Far From Heaven today. This film must have been named by the same ironic little devils that came up with "The Hours." That title held a dark foreshadowing of how long the movie would seem to theatergoers. This title sets up, in a menacingly madcap way, lots of jokes about where audience members will feel during this movie. Far, far from heaven...

The cinematography here is beautiful. The whole look of the film is stunning -- which is the whole point of the project, I think. It really hearkens back to the Cinema of Attractions in the first decade of film history, in which directors shot things just to do it, not for any narrative purpose. Far From Heaven is a cinema of attractions experiment, to give form to a nostalgic technicolor 1950's that really never existed, but which needs to for the idea of the film -- that the 1950's were really much more hellish than today -- to work.

I've given the narrative thread in Far From Heaven serious thought...

I found the film's studied avoidance of the question of the Cold War to be bizarre and weirdly disorienting. Where are the children whose heads were bruised while pressing them against the bottoms of their desks during air raid drills?!

I can only imagine how much horror this film must incite in Japanese-Americans whose ancestors were interred in POW camps after Pearl Harbor, and who find no sympathy here. Thrown in their faces over and over, is a stalk of little Oriental flowers that scream off the screen, "We know you are out there, you descendants of interred Japanese-Americans, and this is our finger sticking in your eye!"

In Far From Heaven's halting symphonic score, I heard derisive laugter for the woeful confusion of the Hollywood writers who were being blacklisted at the time of this film. Their plight is not only glossed over in Far From Heaven, it is shockingly suppressed. The film's repeated use of two-dimensional images of outmoded TV sets, forgotten on office walls, struck me as an insensitive tokenism to the real agony of their sacrifices to preserve the First Amendment.

I am hard-pressed to even get into all the issues surrounding Hindenburg survivors who were, still in the 1950's, stumbling around in pain and loss. Someone has to speak for them. Not this film, however. The characters in Far From Heaven keep lighting up cigarettes and then tossing the still-burning matches callously in front of the camera. Every match is a slur; an inexcusable manipulation of the filmmaker to exploit that transatlantic tragedy. O the humanity!

More than anything, however, while screening Far From Heaven, my thoughts kept returning to the real travesty eclipsed by the myriad images of Julianne Moore standing around looking distraught. A mere 3200 miles from where she bites her lip in re-imagined Hartford CT, water rights were being bloodily contested in the foothills of California's Sierra Madre mountains. Where is that story? The shame! The shame!

Far From Heaven is far from good-storytelling. It is more of a pathetic whine about how bad things used to be when everybody was racist and hypocritical, and when homosexuality used to be considered deviant and so homosexuals used to have to cower in smokey, back alley speakeasys...alongside all those exhausted back alley abortionists, no doubt. Far from Heaven's screenplay was far from ready. The project proves, once again, that sensation is no substitute for story. My advice to theater-goers who are already over-dosed on gay themes and American dream hell, is to stay far from theaters where it is playing.


Novelist, television scribe and esteemed Act One faculty member, Karen Hall, has started a blog on writing. She has begun by talking about the importance of writing from a credo. Check it out.

Thursday, February 27, 2003


In today's Hollywood Reporter, director Martin Scorsese is asked if he anticipated the controversy that surrounded The Last Temptation of Christ.

Scorsese: No, I didn't expect that. I knew there would be some people who would be upset, but this was a theme we discussed very often in high school - the idea of Jesus being fully human, and what does that mean? If he was only divine, then Jesus' dying on the cross and getting past any sexual temptation is no problem. But if he is a man, than he suffers, he makes mistakes, he is tempted..."

Wait a minute! Suffering, yes. Temptation, yes. Mistakes, NO! These three are fundamentally different, despite Scorses's uniting them in a convenient triplet. Mistakes would not be something the Godman could do.

Oh, why can't Hollywood people just stick to politics?!

"The whole idea is to look at the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it." (Fred Rogers in CNN Interview)

I had the opportunity to meet Fred Rogers two years ago. He was accepting a lifetime achievement award from the Christophers. His comments and bearing very much impressed me. Simple. Profound. Principled. He seemed to me to be saintly. He made a plea to parents to be more available to their kids, saying something to the effect of, "Children haven't changed. They need all the same things that children have always needed. It's mommies and daddies who have changed." It reminded me of one of my Mother's maxims about child-rearing: "There is no such thing as 'quality' time for parents and kids to be together. There is only time."

Mr. Rogers is in the most beautiful neighborhood now. RIP.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003


I've been brooding over the reality TV excesses lately, trying to figure out how we, as a culture, got where we are, and where we might be headed. I found this quote on Bizarre Science, which didn't make me feel better, except that it started me brooding over where we can go start a new country...

This memorable quotation is from Sir Alex Fraser Tytler (1742-1813). Scottish jurist and historian, he was widely known in his time and was professor of Universal History at Edinburgh University in the late 18th century. The quotation is from the 1801 collection of his lectures:

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the world's great civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence:
from bondage to spiritual faith;
from spiritual faith to great courage;
from courage to liberty;
from liberty to abundance;
from abundance to selfishness;
from selfishness to complacency;
from complacency to apathy;
from apathy to dependency;
from dependency back again to bondage."

Tuesday, February 25, 2003


Daily Variety reports yesterday that two big animation houses (Visionbox Prods. and X-42 Prods.) are partnering on a 3-D animated flick called, The Chosen One. Story is about an average Joe who is revealed to be "the Messiah," (Variety's words, not mine) and has to make a pilgrimage to Kansas to receive/deliver a message from God, in order to "save a rapidly disintegrating civilization."

Well, the greenlighting of this film goes a long way to validating the part about rapidly disintegrating civilization...

Last night, I (with about 350 other Hollywood Christians) attended an Inter-Mission screening of the much anticipated To End All Wars. "Much anticipated" by Christians in the industry, anyway, because its creators have been everywhere saying that their film would be "gritty and real" and, by implication, much closer to what Christians should be making than Left Behind, or The Omega Code.

To End All Wars is certainly in a completely different category from the apocalyptic genre movies that have come from Christian groups up till now. First of all, it isn't embarrassing to the Church. Far from it. This film presents authentic Christianity, dwelling on themes of self-sacrifice, universal charity and forgiveness. It is a good, solid step forward for Christian filmmakers, and will be a worthy foundation for the work that is to come from believers who seek to bring a Gospel worldview to mainstream cinema.

Having said all that, I also need to say that, personally, I did not enjoy this film, principally because of flaws in its storytelling. I also don't tend to like screen violence. (Although, there are some films that I whole-heartedly recommend that are violent, like Ghandi and The Mission.)

It seems to me that at its bottom-line, To End All Wars is a kind of Christian male hagiography in which godly men are tortured, beaten, bruatlized in every way, and even crucified, but never fail to emanate voice-over Gospel verses while it is going on. The movie is impressive because watching human beings being beaten and tortured is still horrific to watch.

The morning after To End All Wars, I had a brutality hang-over, remarkably similar to how I felt after screening Gangs of New York. My Christian friends will no doubt tell me that is my problem, because the strong redemptive themes here (as opposed to the far-reaching cyncicism of Gangs) make the graphic violence in this film a completely different thing. I don't know. I really wish I didn't feel this way. I like the people who made this movie and I wanted to like their movie too. Sigh.

The terrible violence in Wars isn't gratuitious, in the sense that it IS the story here. But I am always leery of movies that try and be riveting by relying principally on this kind of violence. The problem is, after you have been shocked and violated by the violence, the victory in which the film culminates, never feels as good as the evil felt horrible. This film leaves the viewer feeling a little sick, instead of triumphant. I will be haunted by the violence, but not in a way which deepens me, because I am not processing it. There isn't any work for me to do in watching men beat one another. When I was little, I used to travel around to pro-life talks with my mother. She resisted using slides depicting abortion favoring much more emphasis on images of unborn babies in the womb. She used to say "What will we do when the bloody pictures stop working?" You either get what I mean here, or you don't. It is a prescient caution.

Based on the true story that was Hollywoodized in the classic (and obviously much better film) Bridge On the River Quai, To End All Wars has problems in the first five minutes in terms of its production values. The film introduces us to some of our main Scottish characters, and then uses a series of black and white photos of WWII before showing the same guys being hustled, blindfolded and handcuffed, by a few Japanese extras. Clearly, a war movie feels weirdly cheap, if it doesn't show us any large scale battle scenes....especially when there are movies like Gods and Generals playing in the cineplex next door. Watching Wars, it immediately occurred to me that they didn't have the money here to tell this story, and that the quick transition was a cost-saving measure. It isn't a good thing when a viewer's brain lapses outside the diegetic illusion in the first five minutes to think thoughts like this.

Still, I could forgive them for over-shooting in production values, if the project didn't also fail seriously in script. It does have some very fine actors doing their best here, including Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Carlyle. But the script doesn't give any of the characters sufficient backstory to make us ever really connect with their motivations. The movie suffers from the biggest pitfall of ensemble pieces: too many characetrs, none of them developed fully. The various arcs of the characters felt forced and in some cases, with turning points that just came out of nowhere. It is so blessedly Evangelical to have the lynchpin of the POW's transformation be because they had night time book reading sessions. The film has the best of intentions, but, as with most of the movies written and independently produced by Christians, To End All Wars falls short in terms of the basics of the craft.

And artform. Honestly, I don't think it is possible to tell any kind of cinema story about spiritual truths without relying heavily on imagery to convey the deeper meanings that are beyond human language. Covering a movie with Scriptural voice-overs is never going to convince anybody who doesn't already understand those Scriptures. It ends up in just affirming the already converted.

This movie will work with many Christians, particularly men, and possibly with some non-Christians. I wouldn't let my kids go to see it as the images are just too graphic. I look forward to the next project from this group of filmmakers.

Monday, February 24, 2003


Gods and Generals posted a respectable 8th place for its opening weekend. It took in around $5,000,0000. This is significant because the film can only get one show a night compared to two or three for some of its competitors.

More good news... the dreadful and vile Daredevil tanked in its second weekend. From Boxoffice magazine online:

In a disastrous fall from its $45 million take just a weekend ago, "Spider-Man" wannabe "Daredevil" plummeted far beyond the usual 50% plunge actioners do on weekend #2, splatting up just $18.9 million. One might have thought that all those many Eastern Seaboarders snowdrifted home for the Valentine's Day frame would have helped bolster turnout for the man-in-red-tights affair by heading to the megaplex for the Fox flick now, but such was not the case. Or perhaps they did, but everyone else everywhere else had already had enough of it.

Friday, February 21, 2003


Catholic Exchange is running my review of Gods and Generals. Rod Dreher agrees.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

(The Hollywood Reporter)

(Mark Twain)

Once, when Jesus was particularly dismayed by the obtuseness of his apostles, he cried out, “Can you not read the signs of the times?” The cry echoes down through the ages as a challenge for every subsequent generation of disciples to keep their fingers in the air and their spirits alert. The "Signs of the Times" are there for us to discern openings for evangelization in the mass murmurings of disquiet that periodically sweep through human society. The "Signs of the Times" are also there so that we, who have God in our framework, are ready to hit the ground knees first to forestall or ward off disasters wrought by sin.

In television right now, there is only one "Sign of the Times" because it has swept away all other trends with its gale force irresistibility to American audiences. Reality Television is clearly the entertainment of choice for the masses today, and try as I might, I just can’t figure out what this trend means. But from my perspective of clinging to a spiritual rooftop during this weird flood, it seems clear that there is more and more trash rushing by in the primetime deluge.

I never actually watched a whole episode of Survivior or The Bachelor, or Joe Millionaire or The Mole or Big Brother or The Bachelorette or whatever was the name of that one about the C-list celebrities with cabin fever. As an entertainment industry writer, I have a knee-jerk reaction against any shows that don’t employ large staffs of scribes. But as someone who tries to follow the "Signs of the Times" in entertainment, I have tuned in for fragments here and there. I watched just enough of the last episode of the first Survivor to witness one despicable and filthy female telling another that she would like to preside over her death of thirst in a hot desert if she could. I watched one sequence of The Bachelorette in which she was showering with one of her young suitors. Both scenes struck me as shameful and even revolting – entertaining in the way that hearing your neighbors fight through thin walls is at once awkward and eerily fascinating.

My experience with reality shows began several years ago with MTV’s The Real World. The premise of the show was very similar to CBS’ Big Brother, except that Real World participants only got compensated with notoriety as opposed to the money and notoriety that was in it for Big Brother participants. For awhile, I was enthralled by the characters and internecine warfare that each Real World series profiled. But after three or four cities worth of shows, all the infighting, backstabbing, mob depravity, cliques and cruelty became boring and repetitive. One day, I came to the conclusion that if you’ve seen one houseful of stressed out exhibitionists, you’ve seen them all.

Part of the success of the reality shows can be chalked up to the competitive aspect that has everybody in the office betting on who would last the longest, eat the grossest thing, be given a rose or get a record contract. But there has to be more to it than just the thrill of competition. Witness the last Olympics which, while full of teams to bet on, ended up doing unremarkably in the ratings department.

Reality shows are compelling because they give viewers the chance to rubbberneck at the pain that other people are going through. In polite society, gawking at the discomfort of others is considered gauche. Reality television gives us an insider’s perspective on real traumas that we have no natural license to witness.

And that doesn't have to be bad. A hundred years ago, Emily Dickinson wrote about the inclination to “measure every grief I meet with narrow slanting eyes” so as to “wonder if it feels like mine, or has an easier size.” Dickinson concludes that there is a certain comfort that comes to us from “passing the Calvary” of others. Seen with eyes of compassion, watching human suffering can give us a sense that we are not alone in this valley of tears, and that the body is a frail vessel which is passing away.

The trouble is Survivor, and The Bachelorette and Joe Millionaire, are shot and cut together without the compassion that would make them good for us. Compassionate sensibilities would shield the weak and vulnerable from having their failures paraded in public view. Compassionate sensibilities would not serve up the depression and sins of real people for the voyeuristic enjoyment of others. Compassionate sensibilities would dictate a level of decorum in the way we approach other persons; it would accord them a respectful distance and privacy because they have an innate dignity, whether they have lost sight of it or not.

Viewers of reality shows are not drawn into authentic solidarity with the shows’ participants through compassion. Instead, a viewer is set up in the false and condescending perspective of one who is judge of the participants. We sneer at their follies and rationalizations. We gawk at them writhing in embarrassing and degrading situations and then we place bets on them like they are pit bulls in a back alley. It’s kind of sick, America.

It doesn't matter if the participants in reality shows are okay with all of this, or not. We wouldn't take advantage of a retarded person who danced naked in the street. Well, some of the people who are consenting to have their private moments exposed in reality television, could be argued to be socially or morally or intellectually or spiritually retarded. And we're all fine with objectifying them, because they have given their consent.

The draw of many of the reality shows is very similar to what attracted the throngs in Rome to watch the gladiators go at it in the Coliseum. This kind of entertainment is like a contagious rash that we, with a fallen nature, love to scratch and scratch until we die of the infection. The stakes have to keep getting higher and higher for the titillation factor to kick in. History records that the throngs in Paris during the French Revolution needed always more victims on the guillotine to placate their hunger for the blood and death which had become their entertainment. One Survivor fan told me that he needed to watch the show every night because he was afraid if he didn’t, “he might miss a trainwreck.” That is, he wanted to see the characters get aggressive with each other. That was the point. That was the draw.

Someone noted to me today that the finale of Joe Millionaire was "good TV." When I asked what was good about it, he responded that it was fascinating. Just to be clear: Fascinating isn't necessarily good. We can be mesmerized by many things which slowly poison us.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003


Note from Barbara: I have invited some of our Act One alumns to submit guest reviews. Primarily, so I can avoid having to see movies like Daredevil. Here is one written by Sean Domoachowski, Act One Chicago ’02. Thanks Sean! )

I wanted to like this movie. The last three movies I have seen were utterly dreadful, and I was hoping I would be transported and invigorated by a good, reliable comic book movie.

Alas, such was not to be the case. Daredevil lost me with the opening fight scene: it served no purpose to forward the plot, and the "villain" being pursued was a bit character. The only purpose of the fight scene was, well, to have a fight scene. It did nothing to get Daredevil out of the cinematic starting gates.

So, the movie lost me there. But it got worse. Eventually, the writers lose all credibility when they change the rules of the film's arena for no reason except to show off some special effects. The film’s prologue establishes the story here as science-based, but then before long, the movie morphs into a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon clone in which mere mortals start scaling buildings in single bounds. Either a film is science fiction or fantasy-- you can't have both.

Apart from its flaws in storytelling, Daredevil is very problematic in its themes particularly in its depiction of evil. Played with disturbing zest by Colin Farrell, the villain, Bullseye, is simply set up as "an assassin." He has no compelling motivation for the dastardly deeds he performs throughout the film. And does he ever perform some dastardly deeds... Early on in the film, Bullseye kills two people in as many minutes BECAUSE THEY BOTHERED HIM. From one standpoint, this is simply sloppy and transparent storytelling, in which the filmmakers are just trying to quickly and indisputably establish how really BAD Bullseye is. But it is perplexing that there are no lessons to be learned in this character’s embrace of evil. There is no kernel of truth or insight for the viewers here. It turns us into voyeurs of depravity in a way that degrades us too.

The 1980 comic book film, Superman is now a classic, largely because of the moral dilemma that the villain Lex Luthor incites in our hero, Superman. Lex’s misdeeds force Superman to choose between goods, and ultimately drive Superman to break his father's commandment never to interfere with human history. The film is very much a teaching moment for the man in royal blue tights, and the viewers through him.

Daredevil is particularly troubling because of its exploitive victimization of female characters. Towards the end of the film, Electra, played by Jennifer Garner is killed by Bullseye, in a revoltingly misogynistic and cruel way. Actor Colin Farrell makes his character’s terrible cruelty to women look positively fun. (Besides Elektra, he murders an old lady on an airplane by flicking a peanut into her throat. No, really!) The amused grunts coming from the teenage boys in the row behind me told me everything I needed to know about whether this violence was having a bad effect or not.

Hence, Daredevil panders to the worst inclinations of the largely young, male audience for whom it was created. There is a reason the Old Testament tells us to care for widows. Men have have been infected with the evil tendency to degrade and dominate women since the fall. This manifests itself in men as a dismissal of the value and integrity of women; to see them as good only insofar as they can be used - be it as sexual object, mother of progeny, servant, or whatever. This sin is so ingrained, that God has to remind us to care for widows. So, when a movie has the villain kill an overly talkative old lady, simply because he was peeved by her, and then the audience laughs, I GET UPSET. And so should you. And I'm repeating myself here, but the murder of Elektra was just pornographically violent.

There was, furthermore, no resulting catharsis for the hero in Elektra's death. There is no mourning over her lifeless body. Daredevil, having been severely injured, all of a sudden picks himself up and offs the two villains. Both of the following sequences are absurd. Bullseye gets a pseudo-stigmata in a Catholic church's choir loft, and the "real" villain, "Kingpin", sends all his goons home so he can personally teach Daredevil (seriously wounded, mind you) a lesson. Our hero then vanquishes the ineffectual "real" villain with relative ease. So the true villain is merely a mobster who outsources his crimes to cheeky Irish charlatans-- oops, sorry, I'm mixing up the actor with the character.

So, all comic book movies are NOT created equal. Spare yourselves and your kids the degradation of Daredevil. Go rent Spiderman instead, which has well developed themes of self-sacrifice and treats women much better. Daredevil is just bad. Very bad.

Monday, February 17, 2003


Nice cold open on Everybody Loves Raymond tonight. Deborah, played by one of our heroes, Patricia Heaton, comes in all cheery. She announces that she has just come from a church meeting, during which she signed up to do charity work at a local homeless shelter. Ray is non-plussed until she adds that she also signed Ray up to be a volunteer at a local hospital.

Ray: Oh, whyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?

Deborah: Because that's what people do.

When Ray protests, Deborah shrugs and says: Fine. But this is between you and (points up) Him.

Ray: Oh, don't bring Him into it!

The next scene has Ray, slinking into the hospital for his volunteer work. He gets assigned an ailing black woman to cheer up, and then is surprised to find out how much he likes doing it.

It was a classic Raymond episode - fun, and with a good something extra for the viewer. Too bad most of America was gawking over Michael Jackson tonight.

I woke up in a crabby mood this morning, and dragged myself to Mass snarling and feeling annoyed. Poor Jesus. This is, no doubt, a hangover from having been slimed by Gangs of New York last night. Who says movies don't affect culture? I am in a definitely iconoclastic frame of mind today, and it's all because of a movie.

The question is, what in the movie left such a slime residue? It seems to me it is more than watching several people have their skulls smashed in in several different creative ways. It is more than seeing naked women objectified in unbelievably gratuitous scenes in which they are used more as wall-paper than as human persons. (And I know that is probably the filmmaker's point - to show the character's callousness -- but you end up objectifying people to make your point - which is immoral.) I have a slime hangover for reasons beyond seeing a man's stomach artery slashed and watching his blood gush out in a horrifying of the countless guttings of human beings that are the substance of this film. It's more than seeing an actor trudge through a seven inch flood of human blood in a city street. It's from more than seeing a jar full of human ears.

I think the main source of lasting darkness from Gangs has to do with the film's terrible cynicism about human beings in general , and about America in particular. The great Ron Austin (my students call him the Yoda of Act One), noted to me years ago that Scorsese and Coppola were problematic as "Christian" filmmakers, because "they believe in sin, but they do not believe in redemption." Gangs of New York is a movie in which sin is dominant and pervasive, completely having its way with the rare instances of qualified virtue in a largely graceless cosmos.

The American dream in Gangs is a cruel sham. Patriotism is an excuse to be bigotted and brutal. Every authority in the church and state are vile and self-serving. Every man has his price. Friendship is a marriage of convenience, and the betrayal of friends is reckoned a survival technique. Religious faith has no connection to moral goodness.

There is an old quip that "the hour of crisis is also the hour of heros and saints." Gangs is a movie in which there is only crisis. There are no heros. There are certainly no saints. This reflects a cynicism so deep that it is actually a lie.

Sunday, February 16, 2003


Just saw Gangs of New York tonight. This is such an awful movie that I can't even bring myself to relive it for the purposes of reviewing it. The only thing more repugnant than the graphic brutality and filmmaking excesses in this over-long piece of cinematic pretension, is the fact that it is nominated for TEN Academy Awards! It's the kind of project that makes me want to run from Hollywood, and go get a job in a shoe store somewhere in RI.

Screenwriter William Goldman has fortunately written a sufficiently brutal review of Gangs, such that I don't have to.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I am sick unto death of feeling guilty
about Martin Scorsese. Here are the names of five great directors: Charlie Chaplin,
Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles. What do they
have in common? For all their fame and brilliance, none has won the Oscar for best
direction. Neither has Scorsese. Should the five have won? Absolutely. But it's not a
mortal sin they didn't. Should Scorsese? You bet. A couple of times. ("Taxi Driver,"
obviously, "Raging Bull," obviously. But I fell in love with his talent earlier on, with
"Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.")

This year, more than ever, it's like there's a Byzantine plot to get Scorsese the honor....
And I suspect Scorsese will win, too. But he sure doesn't deserve it, not this year --
"Gangs of New York" is a mess. Please do not sputter on about some of the visuals --
my God, bring Ed Wood back from the dead, give him a hundred mil-plus to play with,
he'd give you some visuals, too.No, the problem with "Gangs of New York" is nothing
new in Scorsese's work -- he has never been secure with a story. No one's much better
with actors or look or camera placement. It's that most crucial director's tool that haunts
him. The reason his movies do not make much, if any, money is not because he is
dealing with esoteric subjects that are above the average moviegoer's head. It's the
clumsy storytelling that frustrates us, sending us out of the theater dissatisfied.

"Gangs" is in trouble from the outset. In the opening scene Leo, at about age 10,
is watching his daddy shave. There is a cut. The razor is given to the kid and then the
father intones the following: "The blood stays on the blade." I have a friend who is so
giddy with the sheer pretentiousness of that line that he says it to everyone. You say
"Good morning." He answers, "Yes, and the blood stays on the blade."

And please do not blame the screenwriter for that. Because when you are dealing with
a giant ape director, they get what they want. And Scorsese chose to open the story
that way. What story though? The lack of an answer is what demolishes the movie. Is
it about gang warfare? Family revenge? Irish immigration? The Civil War? The draft?
Political corruption? Prejudice? These subjects and more, all of them valid enough alone,
flicker in and out, never accumulating or connecting one to the other. One example to
indicate the problem: Two hours and seven minutes into the film, folks, there is a scene
between Leo and the political boss of New York -- and they are discussing a subject never
mentioned before in the movie and which you could not guess if I gave you the rest of my
lifetime: who is going to run for Sheriff. For 10 minutes, an amazing wasted length of movie
time, and especially damaging this late into a pic, we deal with the election of the sheriff
and his subsequent murder and Leo eventually challenging Daniel Day-Lewis to combat.

But we knew from the first sequence that this would happen because Day-Lewis killed
Leo's pop. So now the fight, yes? Nope. Not in this baby. Ten additional minutes drudge
on before they get to it. But this fight was worse -- because you couldn't see it. Scorsese
has hidden it behind the smoke of cannon fire. Nothing to make John Wayne worry. But
the battle is still better than the way the movie ends, with a disgraceful shot of the
World Trade Center. I guess if you can't move people legitimately, you do what you have
to do.
(Originally printed in Variety)

I would rather see The Hours get every award, than see this film get one. And you know how much I loathed The Hours.

Here goes…

Okay, I admit it. I was bored and confused during The Fellowship of the Rings. I started looking at my watch after only thirty minutes of The Two Towers, and then, kept looking at it every five minutes for the next two and a half hours. The idea of having to sit through one more of these dark and dripping marathons this November is casting a dreary pall over the whole year for me.

Ahhh.. That felt good.

Three hours (twice!) of filthy men with bad hair. Dismal looking, cavernous sets and lots and lots of gray everywhere. Oh, and lots of burning and smokey places. Ahhh… even better.

Legions of repulsive CGI things, oozing fluids and grunting menacingly. Flat, unmemorable dialogue mumbled by characters whose weird names I still don’t know after watching them tramp around for six hours. HA HA HA HA!!!

I don’t think The Lord of the Rings and The Two Towers are good movies. I don’t care if I am the only person in Christendom who dissents. And every one who tells me it’s just because I haven’t read the books, only makes my point stronger. Great movies are defined by being able to stand on their own. They don’t need a three-volume study guide.

Clearly, The Rings movies are big movies, with impressive production values and lots of extras and surging, if not haunting, musical scores. But even with all that going for them, they still don’t hold together as good storytelling.

My sense is, because they come from source material created by one of our guys, Tolkien, the whole Church is urgent to get behind them with effusive plaudits. The films are visually interesting, but not profound in insight. They have a lot of action, but because the characterizations are so halting and incomplete, they do not ultimately challenge the viewer. Does anybody really want to be any of the characters in these movies? Does anybody walk away puzzling over some life-changing paradox here? No. The Rings movies, are “full of sound and fury. Signifying (almost) nothing.”

To be fair, I did see in the Gollum sequences of The Two Towers some of the deep theological themes people keep telling me are present in the trilogy. I thought it was brilliant filmmaking that the first time I saw the Gollum, I thought he was disgusting, but by the end of the film, I thought he was cuddly looking. Watching him yodel happily while catching fish was one of the most charming screen moments of the year. (And yet, one of the world’s leading Tolkien scholars spoke to me of that particular scene with disdain, assuring me that it was untrue to Tolkien. Of course, it was…whatever…) I thought the dualism reflected in his personality was clever and bordering on the profound. Bordering. For anyone who has ever cracked the Letter to the Romans this stuff about us doing the evil while loving the good isn’t that earth-shattering. It’s rather, just a description of human existence.

In my generation’s epic fantasy trilogy, Star Wars, we knew Darth Vader and the Emperor and Jabba the Hut were evil because they did bad, mean things to people. They were, in the words of St. Bernadette, people who "love sin." Darth choked somebody to death very early on with almost no provocation. The Emperor nearly sizzled Luke to death, all the while gurgling and chortling with glee. Jabba ate frogs! And, um, fed his enemies to a big hole in the sand, in which they would be “slowly and agonizingly digested over a period of a thousand years.” Indisputably bad guys all.

In the Rings movies, the bad guys are proposed to be bad, why? Because they are ugly, and because their building projects are ecological disasters? It’s as though the filmmakers want us to just take their word for it, "These dark oozing guys are bad. Look what they do to the trees, after all!"

There are SO many scenes that should have been cut from both of these movies. There are SO many unnecessary characters whom we don’t care about because they come out of nowhere and fade away just as fast. I never got why the ring is so bad. Just because Gandalf said it was early on in the first movie? Yes, it made Uncle Bilbo look a little odd once, but I tend to look that way whenever people tend to disagree with me. Sorry, I just don’t get it. (If you are feeling the impulse to tell me that is because I haven’t read the books, please feel free to send me $1 instead….I figure it’s as good a way to get rich as any.)

Okay…let me have it…

Friday, February 14, 2003


Michael Medved puts together some "Good grief! What are we going to do?!" numbers in his column over at World Net Daily.

"The Advocate, America's most prestigious homosexual magazine, published a list of the 10 top gay films for 2002, and seven of those 10 emerged as major Oscar contenders."

I was aware of having been smashed on the head with the piano sized lesbian themes in The Hours, and the bi-sexual themes in Frida, but I didn't realize that Lilo and Stitch was the creation of two loudly and proudly "OUT" film makers. Far From Heaven, is, of course, about a closet homosexual family man in the 1950’s, and then the Latino film Y Tu Mama Tambien has a love scene between two young men. Medved goes on to note that,

“…the Academy failed to recognize the heroic achievement of director Peter Jackson (For The Two Towers) instead nominating the flamboyantly gay and terminally eccentric Spaniard Pedro Almodovar for his disturbing and hypnotic view of illness and obsession, "Talk To Her."

The good news is, the Academy Awards have lost almost all credibility with the vast majority of the viewing public. But it is discouraging to think how far the Church has to go in winning back the artistic community.


We've seen this movie already. We've seen it hundreds of times. We've seen it much better.

The latest entry in the extensive catalog of Holocaust films adds nothing to our understanding of the many issues surrounding the terrible years of Nazi power. As always, we have the shocking brutality of the German soldiers, and the incomprehensible passivity of the Jewish people as they are led to the slaughter. We get to see innumerable people shot at point blank range. We watch women, children and elderly people kicked, whipped, humiliated and starved. At the center of it all is a main character with no arc, who never changes in the piece, and who survives the War by dumb luck and the kindness of strangers.

But this movie isn't about the kindness of strangers. It isn't about why some people are brutal to others. It isn't about heroism, or the lack of it. I thought, from the title, that it was going to be about the healing power of art or music, but it isn't really about those things either. The Pianist doesn't build toward any theme. In resisting a theme, it makes the statement that there are no lessons to be learned from the Holocaust. There is only horror.

I understand that somewhat. That's how I feel about September 11. But that's because we are still so close to it. The fact is, there are lessons in September 11, which we will continue to put together as the shock and horror fades. The Pianist seems to me to be an attempt to keep the wounds of the Holocaust fresh. I don't understand that.

This narrative here unfolds in a very linear way, although it is jammed with repetitive scenes, half of which could have been cut without any diminution in the viewer's ability to follow the story. Surprisingly in a post-Schindler's List Holocaust film, there is no attempt in The Pianist to create metaphoric imagery which might have given it a more haunting and deepening power. It is not boring, the way passing a car wreck on the side of the highway is never boring. It is one dreadfully long immersion in horror and suffering and the particular inhumanity that occurred during WWII. We've seen this all before. We've seen it.

Somebody has to say it. Why do we never see movies about the Gulag, or about the systematic starvation of millions of people by Stalin. We never see movies about the tens of millions who died under Mao. How about stories of the attrocities during the Spanish Civil War? Or the horrible persecutions carried out in the 1920's against the Church in Mexico? All of these terrible moments in the 20th Century were also times of great heros and saints, but we never see their stories. We keep rehashing the exact same scenes from WWII over and over and over. Nothing new to add. Like scratching an inflamation over and over so that it never heals. We have needed to see stories of the Holocaust. But we need to see the other stories as well. It's an injustice not to hear their blood crying out from the soil too.

A glaring omission in this movie, is the almost complete absence of any signs of the faith of the Jewish people. God is mentioned twice in three hours. Halfway through the film a Jewish man, watching an act of Nazi brutality states, "It makes me stop believing in God." Later in the film, a Nazi officer makes a reference to God. I found the lack of reference to God dreadful and unrealistic. This is Polanski's problem, no doubt, but it really skews a picture which purports to represent other details with graphic detail. It does fit the statement of the whole film, however, because injecting God into things would have also injected in a note of hope. And hope is not wanted here. Only horror.

A cinema storytelling convention is that the main character in a movie should be the one who changes the most. From that standpoint, the main character in The Pianist is the city of Warsaw, Poland. The most impressive moment in the film, is not one of the random acts of Nazi violence, but rather the long slow pull-back which reveals the bombed out hull of Warsaw at the end of the war. Having seen the city in its heydey in 1939 in the early moments of the film, at the end we are shaken to see what WWII really did to the centers of life in Europe. It makes you think about what war is, and the terrible sense of waste and devastation when it is all over. It's a great moment. But it can't save this film.

I can't recommend The Pianist. Rent Schindler's List. It's a much more thoughtful, prophetic and better-crafted work of art.

Thursday, February 13, 2003


It's award season here in Tinseltown. If you think the few award shows you people in "fly-over" get to see on TV are annoying, you should be here for the ad nauseum infinitum Gush Fest that we all have to endure from January to April. We've got hundreds of award ceremonies from every possible sub-set of the industry, and, beyond, from every public policy group which wants to make a point and raise some funds by giving somebody an award.

Phrases that will be over-utilized in the next three months here in Hollywood:

- "It was such a gift to be able to work with the most AMAZING cast and crew."
- "[So and So, usually the director] is the most AWESOME talent."
- "This was the most INCREDIBLE opportunity for me."
- "What we do is SOOOOOOOO IMPORTANT."

Just so you all know, most of us who live and work here, also find these kind of statements annoying and pretentious...and embarrassing, when one considers that pediatric surgeons, prison chaplains and teachers of the disabled might be listening to them too.

Phrases that will be under-utilized in the next few months here in Hollywood:

- "I am someone who memorizes and recites other peoples' words for a living."
- "I was unbelievably over-paid for this project, and I whined about not getting paid enough."
- "This project is an offensive piece of long-winded propaganda which will be forgotten as soon as Award season is over."
- "We all really don't like each other, but we love humanity very much."

The REAL award for cinematic achievement, is that the global audience takes a project to heart, and so the project endures, and becomes part of the immortal canon of beloved movies. Here are a few truly AMAZING, and AWESOME, performers who never won the Oscar, and were overlooked for their work, particularly, in these truly INCREDIBLE, and in some cases, IMPORTANT, projects. But I bet they wouldn't trade their place in the canon for any old statue.

- Greta Garbo, for her work in Ninotchka (1939)
Garbo was nominated for Oscars four different times. She lost out in 1939 to Vivien Leigh, who won for GWTW.

- Orson Welles, for Citizen Kane (1941)
Welles was just too damn good at the age of twenty-four, and in his first film. The industry just couldn't forgive him for that. They gave him the statue for screenplay, but he should've gotten it for Best Picture and Best Director, and arguably, Best Actor.

- Barbara Stanwyck, for her work in Double Indemnity (1944)
Again, Stanwyck was nominated four times, but never brought home a statue. But she was in Double Indemnity so it works out...

- Montgomery Clift, for From Here to Eternity (1953)
Another four time nominee, never a groom. But he got to look like that. And even after a disfiguring accident, he still looked better than most guys unscathed. So, again...

- Deborah Kerr, for The King and I (1956)
Deborah was nominated for six Oscars, but never won. But dancing with Yul Brynner is its own reward.

- Peter O'Toole, for Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
O'Toole has been nominated six times, but never won. This year, the Academy wanted to present him with an honorary award, but he got to turn them down for a change.

- Richard Burton, for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)
Certainly one of the greatest actors of all time, Burton was nominated for the Academy Award just two times less than Liz Taylor was married, but never won. In 1966 he lost to Paul Scofield who won for A Man for All Seasons. (Phew.)

Wednesday, February 12, 2003


Do your part to hasten cultural renewal. Skip Daredevil next weekend, and go see God's and Generals instead.

People outside of "the industry" do not appreciate how much importance is attached to a movie's opening weekend. Religious people tend to stay away from a new release until a few weekends have gone by...or, much more devastatingly to our hopes of changing the film industry, to wait for things to come out on video. No. No. No.

Whomever wins opening weekend rules the world. Everything about the future release schedule, television and ancillary distribution is tied to the performance of a film on opening weekend. Please go see Gods and Generals this weekend in support of a wonderful, worthy project made by one of our own.

Gods and Generals is the greatest Civil War movie ever made, but, as with any great work of art, it is also much more. Writer/Director Ron Maxwell is a devout Christian, who not only gives us a meticulous historical piece, but also a "genuine source of theology", borrowing language from the Pope's 1999 Letter to Artists. The overriding theme here has to do with the nature of patriotism, and the interplay of patriotism and conscience. It is a movie which contrasts two views of the Will of God. Are we supposed to be agents of God's Will, or are we waiting on God's Will to be manifest, in His time?

I wrote a long article on the film for Liguorian. If Catholic Exchange doesn't run it soon, I'll reprint it here.


Tuesday, February 11, 2003


AP reports this week that the instances of sexually explicit material on television has increased in the last year. This is news to no one, it seems, except the people who make TV shows.

"I am blown away ... at how much sexual content there is in primetime television," said Paramount Television president Garry Hart. "It's a tidal wave."

It's like that great scene in Casablanca, when the Claude Reins character cries out while pocketing his roulette winnings:

"I'm SHOCKED, SHOCKED to find out that there is gambling going on here!"


With a well-deserved 13 Academy Award nominations, Chicago is my pick for pretty much Best Everything this year. The only exception is Queen Latifah's nod for Supporting Actress. Her performance was stilted, in a role that could have been one more fabulous quirk in a film that is a quirky rush.

I loved this film. I wanted to see the opening number again, immediately after it was over. The storytelling here is great - first time Director Rob Marshall has obviously graduated from the MTV school of showing what things mean as opposed to how they look.

The editing here is also astounding. The filmmakers masterfully set-up the whole movie and the two major characters in just the first musical number of the film, principally with intercutting. (Oh, am I talking about that opening number again?)

The performances are wonderful and fun. In the screening I attended here in Hollywood, the audience burst into delighted applause at two different moments. I joined in. Part of the surprise of Chicago, is actual having stars entertain us. We're unused to watching actors work to make us happy. The cinema of the last thirty years has mostly been a series of close-ups of beautiful people scowling or looking pensive. This movie has them spinning and shuffling, working their tails off for our enjoyment. It makes the stars our servants in a way that is fascinating to watch, and is good for the actors too - the kind of sacrifice John Paul II refers to as the priesthood of the artist. (Letter to Artists, 1999) It's also good for us who get to be on the receiving end of their sacrifices.

This isn't a movie for kids. There are lots of scantily clad women, leering lasciviously at the camera, backgrounding themes of murder, adultery and the abuse of women. However, despite all this, Chicago isn't a negative film (for adults). The sexuality here is not gratuitous or erotic. It is strangely true to the fantasy underworld that is created in the film. This is a sad world, but the light-handed style of the film allows us to look at it's seediness without superiority or disgust. It is a delightful example of what Dickinson meant when she said, "Tell the Truth, but tell it slant, or all the world be blind."

From a story perspective, the most interesting part of Chicago is that all the characters are, well, bad. There isn't one virtuous person in the lot. There isn't one character whom we trust, or more importantly, in terms of movie conventions, whom we would like to be. The closest thing to a good man in the film is the hapless husband of Zellweger's Roxy, played by the talented John C. Reilly. Yet, he is completely ineffectual here, aptly describing himself in his solo number as Mr. Celophane.

Generally, a film without a hero would be a recipe for a box-office bomb. But here they manage to pull it off. Can't figure out how they did that.

Definitely worth seeing.

Monday, February 10, 2003

- A handy title that not only names the film, but also aptly describes how long every minute of this dreadful piece of cinematic doo-doo feels to the members of the audience -

This is a movie about three different women in three different decades. The only thing good here is the three women, played by the legendary Meryl Streep, the always compelling Julianne Moore, and the greatest actress out there right now, Nicole Kidman. (Was she this great when she used to be married to Tom? Yeah, there was To Die For, back then, wasn't there?) Nicole, as people out here are wont to say, can do anything. And here, as the deeply disturbed Virginia Woolf, she managed to amaze me again. This feat is doubly amazing because Nicole managed to amaze me, despite the fact that I was fighting waves of nausea and disgust at the horribleness of the story in The Hours, the tortured inversion of truth in the film's theme, the dialogue which was remarkable several times for being bizarrely inappropriate to the moment, and even the score, best described as cacophonic irresolution, which made me envy Ed Harris when he jumped out the window. At least he could get away from it. As much as it will kill me, I think Nicole Kidman must needs get the Oscar for her incredibleness in this piece of insidious tripe.

There are all kinds of story problems here. A friend of mine nailed the fundamental story flaw with the astute query to a fawning industry friend, "I'll give you one hundred dollars right here, if you can tell me why Meryl Streep's character was unraveling." This is the lynchpin question of the movie. The fact that the answer is illusive is tied to the fact that the whole premise of the movie is one big lie.

The premise is: "Sometimes, in order to be happy, you have to go against your own nature."

Just for the record, this is a lie. To be happy, you have to cooperate with the nature that God gave you. Going against your nature is a recipe for personal disaster.

So, in the movie, we are treated to a disturbing sequence of unnatural acts that are billed as courageous lily pads to fulfillment and happiness for the characters. Every one of the vignettes gives us a protracted lesbian kiss - an unnatural act for two of the women, at least. (Although through slow reveals, we are led to discover, with them, how emotionally satisfying same-sex kissing actually can be.) Julianne Moore's character ends up abandoning her child, a profoundly unnatural act. In all three of the vignettes, the most profoundly unnatural act, suicide, is reckoned a doorway to freedom.

A presupposition of the film constitutes another big lie: "Women who are in relationships with men, will be miserable." This gets us back to why the Streep character, who is in a wonderful lesbian relationship with a character played uncomfortably by Alison Janney (Left Wing), should still be unraveling through most of the hours of The Hours. It's a real stretch to put it together, because the writer here is so clearly in search of a theme. It seems that one might conclude that Streep's lesbian was being emotionally sucked dry by Ed Harris' despicable grizzled gay man, who is dying of AIDS. It isn't until Harris flings himself out a window, that Streep is finally free of the vortex of male oppression.

Another compelling lie in the film, is that the Ed Harris character should never have been born. His mother, played by Julianne, should just never have given him birth. The implicit suggestion is that, since this vignette takes place in the 1950's, abortion would not have been an option for an unhapy lesbian trapped in heterosexual domestic hell. Her son goes on to have a miserable life. He becomes cranky and obnoxious, living in his own filth and eaten away by AIDS, until he finally kills himself.

This is a very bad movie on pretty much every level except the acting. It is pervaded by a stifling joylessness that, in the end, just made me want to pray for the people who put this out there to slime the rest of us. So, I suppose it isn't a total loss for them.

So, why is The Hours up for an Academy Award for Best Picture? Sadly, I think just because of its lies. This is one of those Hollywood "We're making a statement" films, like Boys Don't Cry or The Cider House Rules. It is an attempt to normalize lesbianism. It is an attempt to normalize human life without the limits of God's law.

My rating of The Hours: "Run for your life! Don't wait for the video!"

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Everywhere I go, people ask me for recommendations of movies and TV shows. "What's good out there that we should see?" This blog will be serve hopefully as a more pastoral response than my stock response: "Someday, I'm going to make a list..."

I am indebted to one of my Act One students, Sean Domachowski, for getting sick of hearing me promise to make a list, and creating this blog for me. (Yes, I abandoned the sola-yellow version. Now, we know, Sean, why, as Emily Dickinson noted, "God uses yellow sparingly." What's good enough for God....)

The second purpose of this blog will be to rant with gleefully unmediated vigor, against all dreadful movies and TV shows which are out there. As a movie reviewer for Liguorian and Christian Single, and the National Catholic Register , I have to see pretty much everything. And most of it is too horrible to ever really waste a column writing about. Besides, the magazines mostly want happy, positive things to recommend, and don't want to give even negative publicity to the truly insidious and nasty things lurking on screens. So, this will also be a place in which, because of the bonds of charity that unite us to one another in the Church, I will hopefully spare you from seeing some of the visual sewage that I have sat through. Of course, if the impulse to want to flush your brain is something you enjoy, than look here for heads-up about many future hours of twisted pleasure.

Finally, I find that we, in the Church, tend to like or pan movies based strictly on the story. If the bad guy ends up in jail at the end, we're happy. There's so much more to the art form than just the story. Granted, the story is the spine upon which everything else hangs, but we can look at movies on many other levels. If we're ever going to enter into any kind of real dialogue with the entertainment industry, we have to be a little more adept at reading the art form than we are now. As this is also beyond the scope of the magazine aarticles I write, I'll indulge my passion for the screen art form here. My hope is to permanently ruin your enjoyment of movies as a mere fan, and show you "heights you never saw" (Emily Dickinson again) through a filmmaker's eye.

In doing this, I will attempt to only quote Emily Dickinson once during each post. (A rule I have already violated in this the premiere post. I'm weak...) Welcome!