August 28, 2016

MOVIES: "BEN-HUR" (2016 RE-MAKE)

(Don't watch the trailers. There are no good ones. Don't do the film justice.
But if you must, watch this one: Only Good Ben-Hur Trailer)

The latest big screen "Ben-Hur" is a fresh take on the beloved 1880 historical fiction novel: "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" by Lew Wallace, that deftly and intricately weaves the story of Judah Ben-Hur into the Gospel account of Jesus. However, it sadly limps in the faith department, which, of course, is the punchline of the whole shebang. With that, I am signaling that I assume you know the story and so shall be dropping SPOILERS in this review. Should you see this film? Yes.

ROME CANNOT BE TRUSTED

Judah is from a wealthy Jewish family living in Jerusalem along with his adopted brother, Messala Severus, a pagan Roman. At the beginning of the movie, they are best of friends and both avid horsemen (foreshadowing the famous chariot race between them at the end of the film). Messala leaves the family to join the Roman army. He wants to marry Judah's sister, but he feels he has lived off the charity of Judah's family all his life and wants to build his own life and fortune first.
Enmity between the Jewish Zealots and the Roman legions is heating up. Judah, a friend of Rome, openly opposes the rabble-rousers and believes in "keeping the peace," even at cost of Jewish freedom. Judah truly lives what he believes, doesn't want to see harm come to either side, and takes active measures to calm animosities. But his flaw was in trusting Rome too much. When he and his family are mistakenly taken for Zealots and arrested, he loses everything and winds up a galley slave. In his absence, Esther, his wife, becomes a follower of Jesus.

CINEMATOGRAPHY ON POINT

The cinematography is impressive from the get-go. The film wastes no time in back story, but plunges us into the hoof and heart pounding antics of Judah and Messala. Familiar characters like Pontius Pilate and Dismas pop up here and there, reminding us of the destiny that Judah is poised and privileged to be a part of. Certain scenes could have been a little more nitty-gritty, particularly when Judah becomes a galley slave and then escapes and is afloat on the sea (he could've/should've been more beefy/burned). Morgan Freeman--who despite his overused narrator's voice, and in my opinion, tired old ways of almost non-acting, not trying any more--puts in a solid performance as Ilderim, the wealthy horse owner. Ilderim's role is rather major to the story's turning, and Freeman accomplishes the task with aplomb.

SOME FLAWS

A few shoddy oversights mar the film throughout: at times the everyday hair (especially the women's) and everyday garb is almost indistinguishable from twenty-first century styles (think Eileen Fisher). I also question whether Jewish women went about with their hair uncovered as a matter of course. It's darn distracting, as are the moments (quite a few) when the filmmakers evidently couldn't figure out how to have characters "find" each other again, serendipitously meet up, etc. What happens is a character will just emerge from "stage left": "Hi!" Also very distracting. Esther's role is extremely one-dimensional, and the actress plays it thus. If you're looking for the red-hot romance of Charlton Heston and Haya Harareet...forget it.

In general, the acting is good, but not great. However, in the hands of a director who could have milked some of the well set up scenes (and epic scenery) for every ounce of danger and tension, it could have been much better. However, I cannot say this of the final chariot race which is the centerpiece and masterpiece.

The best fleshed-out character? Rome itself. The character of the Romans is constantly bandied about and three-dimensionally depicted. I felt that the "worthy nemesis" (Rome) needed a "worthy protagonist" (Jesus, and Judah's eventual following of him) which the film did not deliver. There were some noble attempts, but it needed to be much stronger. Jesus' unexplained: "Love your enemies" in the face of the "might makes right" of Rome was screaming for so much more "showing" of how socially transformative Christian charity is--even at its birth. God's love needed teeth (ideally in the depiction of Judah's character arc)--teeth that were a match for Rome's violence. I don't think the film succeeded here. Judah's mother and sister were not even cured by the blood of Jesus from the Cross (as in the 1959 "Ben-Hur"), but by rain running off the Cross.

"ALMOST"

In some overall ways, this "Ben-Hur" is an "almost" film. It's "almost" a great re-make. Except for the chariot race which succeeds in every way. (And I'm all for remakes: Let's see what you can do. Give us your perspective. What are your new insights? Can you best  the original? Show us what you've got.)

After two hours of building a well-paced drama, the end is a mad dash to neatly wrap things up in a blatantly inconsistent way. The end needed to take its time. Even though in first century Palestine (and elsewhere for that matter) religion and belief in God/gods was assumed, we do not observe Judah nor Messala doing very much existential seeking. There is hardly any religion/Godtalk. Then, suddenly, at the end, Jesus' Crucifixion and forgiveness is understood and assimilated. Judah (and Esther) had brief and meaningful encounters with Jesus prior to Calvary, but for the message of Jesus to rather immediately coalesce with our characters' hearts and wipe out years of horrific betrayal, abuse, and bloodshed did not ring true to me in the least.

After her "conversion," Esther talks and acts a bit like a West Coast Jesus Freak from the 60's and 70's, and the Christianspeak sounds like 80's posters, T-shirts and mugs. The lines/scenes of faith at the end are executed with almost robotic, "let's get this over with"-ness. I remember the final scenes also wrapping up rather quickly in the Charlton Heston version of "Ben-Hur," but it was done much more organically, synergetically, artfully, believably, and movingly. The current "Ben-Hur" makes faith and charity almost seem a simplistic, fundamentalist, but at the same time tenuous anchor in a storm. The pivotal reconciliation scene between Judah and Messala was laughably lame, and it could have been so much better! This film was well done in most respects and then it dropped the ball when it came to crafting genuine and authentic human experiences of redemption.

This version of "Ben-Hur" is an exciting, even riveting at times, quasi-biblical adventure, but it falls flat when it matters most. I've just re-watched the movie-musical "Les Mis," and couldn't help comparing the two. One is a CGI tour-de-force with fine action sequences. The other goes to the depths of human pathos and convinces us that misery and death will not have the last word, as it shimmers with divine hope.

OLDIE BUT GOODIE

Should you watch the Charlton Heston "Ben-Hur" again or for the first time? Yes! The eleven Academy Award winner (including "Best Picture," 1959) has aged well. Particularly poignant is the love story between Judah and Esther. True chemistry and passion! The chariot race changed filmmaking forever, did not have the benefit of CGI, and stuntmen lost their lives for it. Prepare to be astounded. And for true film buffs, there's even a silent 1925 black and white version available on the 4-disc collector's edition.

Due to the gorey violence and many CGI horses getting realistically destroyed, "Ben-Hur" 2016 is not for the kiddos.

OTHER STUFF:

--I missed the line (from 1959 film) from the foreman of the galley slaves to Judah: "There's hate in your eyes, 41. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive." Oh, and Judah's number got changed to "61."

--The galley slave really made me think of the consequence/curse of Adam's Fall: toil will become exceedingly difficult for men (as will bearing life become exceedingly difficult for women).

--Rome: "No more mercy."

-- "They will invite you to their games to watch others suffer so you'll forget what you have lost."

--"They want blood. They're all Romans now."

--"The compassion that Jesus offers them is more dangerous than all the Zealots combined."




August 27, 2016

NETFLIX: "STRANGER THINGS"



Looking for a fairly "acceptable" series for pre-teens/teens? Set in the early 80's, "Stranger Things" isn't perfect, but it's got a lot of good stuff. Four do-or-die friends (pre-teen boys) play a game of Dungeons and Dragons (uh-oh, problematic in itself) that comes to life. Or rather coincides with a top-secret government experiment going on in their neighborhood. It's a bit of sci-fi meets supernatural thriller meets buddy movie meets John Hughes.

The series starts off with a lot of bad language (taking the name of the Lord in vain: "Jesus!"--especially awful when kids say it. You can teach your kids to say: "May He always be praised!" when they hear it), a teen sexual encounter (that goes awry), dysfunctional family dynamics (except for the fierce motherlove of Joyce, played by an Emmy-deserving Winona Ryder) including one useless and one abandoning father (but there are other good male role models).

So why am I recommending this? There are amazing portrayals of keeping promises, friendship, sacrifice, and in the end, all kinds of people stepping up the plate to love and do the right thing. The adults work together, the teens work together and the kids work together. Families are reunited.

It's intense, but if your young people are already used to intense screen stories, this might be a good one to watch as a family--and, of course, always discuss. And I gotta say, I pretty thoroughly enjoyed ST. It is such a joy watching today's child actors, and the girl who plays "El" is a REVELATION. She's so good that she could make a Cate Blanchett look like an amateur.

A good review: http://www.pressreader.com/canada/toronto-star/20160827/282226600149024



August 13, 2016

MOVIES: THE LITTLE PRINCE



The beloved classic, "The Little Prince," was released simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix, and may or may not disappoint fans of the fable. Jeff Bridges' rich, warm, craggy American voice brings to life Saint-Exupéry, the author and aviator. Three different kinds of storytelling visuals are utilized: the now-familiar computer animation, sporting oversized heads and large, expressive eyes ("Inside Out," "Despicable Me," etc.); stop-action figures, and Saint-Exupéry's own line drawings brought to life.

This presentation of "The Little Prince" is couched within a contemporary story of a little girl and her mother, which fleshes it out and grounds the sometimes metaphorical etherealness of the story. There is even a counterbalance of cynicism and incredulity on the part of The Little Girl (no name!) who is being raised by an over scheduling, overly pragmatic, overachieving mother. All The Little Girl knows is science, facts, calculations and her "life board" (a plan of "what is essential" that her mother has concocted, which lays out every single hour, day and year of The Little Girl's life). The Little Girl's watch alarm sounds when it's time to move on to her next "project." She is hardly a child at all. Her surroundings are gray and drab.

LEARNING HOW TO BE A KID

When The Little Girl and her mother move to a new neighborhood, they wind up next to a tall, skinny, ramshackle Victorian house in disrepair (shades of "Up"). Like its ancient inhabitant (The Aviator/Saint-Exupéry), it's out of step (in a good way) with the austere, cube-like, cookie-cutter homes in what is obviously a new development. Since her mother is at work non-stop, The Little Girl (about nine years old) is left to her own devices for most of the day and night, or rather she is left to her "life board" which consists mainly of studying in order to secure a certain, successful future. (Hers, of course, is a terrible life, and is actually child endangerment.)

The Little Girl makes friends with The Aviator rather quickly (unbeknownst to supermom), begins spending lots of time with him and slacking on her studies. (Again, sending a terrible message. I don't believe we should automatically demonize men, young or old, as potential creepy-deepy predators--but a little girl [or boy], left alone day and night, hanging out with an old guy her mom doesn't even know?) On the up side (pun intended), The Aviator's home and yard is an unkempt playground of sorts. In contrast with The Little Girl's Soviet-esque home, Saint-Exupéry's environment is colorful, full of birds, flowers, music, whimsical widgets and his broken-down plane that he is forever trying to restart.

Saint-Exupéry lets The Little Girl be a kid. In fact, he teaches her how to be a child. How to take normal kid risks (like climbing a tree), to believe in herself, that she is capable of doing things, even if she hasn't studied them and they're not on the life board. Little by little, on paper and verbally, Saint-Exupéry tells her the story of The Little Prince. Skeptical at first, The Little Girl is eventually captivated by the tale. She rolls the characters and dialogue and lessons around in her head. She discovers artifacts that represent The Little Prince and his world, or shall we say "worlds," or shall we say asteroids! The rose, the fox, the serpent, the sands of the Sahara all come alive in her underused imagination. But The Little Girl never loses her practicality, and when she comes to the end of the story, she is furious. SPOILER ALERT: If you don't know the ending of "The Little Prince," I'm revealing it here. The Little Prince chooses death (by serpent bite--let's call it what it is: suicide) in order to go back to his asteroid--just exactly how this all works is never explained--to be with the rose that he ultimately loves but abandoned (because of her vain demands and because "they were too young to know how to love").

VALIDATING CHILDHOOD

This ending does not sit well with The Little Girl at all, and in anger, she cuts off her friendship with the pilot. Worse yet, shortly thereafter, the old man is rushed by ambulance to the hospital. He had been hinting to her all along that he was preparing to "leave." His health had been obviously failing, but in her child's mind, The Little Girl assumed he was talking about going in his plane on a trip from which he wouldn't return.

The Little Girl and her mom visit Saint-Exupéry in the hospital and amends are made. However, the old man is dying. But The Little Girl hatches a plan. She believes that no one less than The Little Prince himself can save her dear, elderly friend. And here's where it all gets fantastical and stretches the bounds of our most magical thinking. The Little Girl takes off in Saint-Exupéry's old plane in search of The Little Prince. She finds him, but he's all grown up. In a bad way. And here's the real message of The Little Prince, both the book and the movie: Growing up isn't the problem, it's forgetting what it's like to be a child that's the problem. Because to see the world as a child has great value.

"The Little Prince" validates kids being kids as such a very good thing. They are told that they need to take their childhood with them into adulthood. Bravo. In the big city, The Little Prince has been brainwashed to a different understanding of what is "essential": that which makes money. Working hard. Commerce. That which can be bought and sold. This is a clever and brilliant examination of how words and values can get so twisted that they can have opposite meanings, but not just subjectively--"happiness is different things to different people." We are made to understand that Saint-Exupéry is right about what is essential, not big business.

THEOLOGY OF THE BODY FAIL

The problematicness of The Little Prince (the original book and this movie) is its sidestepping of death with euphemisms. Why can't we teach kids about death? Because then we'd have to say something real about God. So what we're stuck with is Disney / Life of Pi / Kung Fu Panda "Just Believe!" nonsense. (Believe in WHAT?) The Little Girl rightly demands of the aviator to tell her exactly what happened to The Little Prince, and she gets a wussy "I choose to believe...." She gets: "He's always with me, I hear him laughing in the stars." There's nothing wrong with this kind of poetry that we all use when we've lost a loved one and something they loved in life reminds us of them. But to shovel only this weak drivel into little and big Christian* minds? Pshaw!

We know so much better. We have so much better. We get so much better. Our loved ones live on as they are, as persons, in God, with God. The redeemed will be reunited forever in a very real heaven. We, God, death, life, the afterlife are not just some nebulous ball of sentimental mush. It's all so very real. There will also be "a new heavens and a new earth" as the Bible tells us (so don't be surprised at very real roses and foxes in "heaven")!  And do not get me started on the resurrection of the body in The Little Prince. The body is stated in no uncertain terms to be a shell that we leave behind. Zut alors!

Unfortunately, one of the most prominent messages of "The Little Prince" is that the spiritual is what's most real, what matters most, what endures. The following favorite LP maxims are helpful and true, but only if understood in conjunction with the reality, the equal importance and continuing existence of the body in eternity: "Only with the heart can we see rightly." "What is essential is invisible to the eye."
____
*I'm saying "Christian" here because we already know better because God has revealed the nature of reality to us (and to all, of course).

OTHER STUFF:

--The sad "presence by absence" of supermom's husband and The Little Girl's father feels a bit like some kind of indictment against men/dads. I even thought The Little Girl was going to meet her Dad when she takes off for the big city (every holiday, her Dad sends her a different snowglobe of the city where he works), but nope.

--Perhaps, a Christian narrative might be read into LP? Adam, alone in the world, meets Eve, but it all goes wrong. The Prince (the new Adam) lays down his life for her. But it's the serpent who's employed for the deed? Christian Mingle Mistaken Mystified Mixup.

--The kids' voiceovers are terrific. The Little Prince sounds like Linus from "The Peanuts." The grown up Little Prince is also done tremendously by Paul Rudd.

--"Men grow thousands of roses and they do not find what they're looking for. What they're looking for could be found in a single rose."

--"If you want a friend, you have to tame me."

--My favorite Saint-Exupéry book is "Wind, Sand and Stars," about his life as a pilot--with lots of philosophizing, bien sûr.

--As a newly-minted Education M.A., there's a message here about "education-direct-to-workforce," "education as an arm of labor"....

--Big Cinema Music.

--Crushing stars for energy! Laudato Si!

--Like many kids' movies these days, the kids teach the parents the wisdom. As in "Brave," mom loosens up and learns  from her daughter.

--"The Little Prince" joins the movies "Maleficent," "Frozen," "Brave," "Spy," etc., where "the prince" is either useless, a buffoon or saved by the princess.

July 17, 2016

MOVIES: "THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS"



With a juicy, promising title and a screen populated with adorable, fuzzy furballs of varied shapes and sizes, the animated smash hit: "The Secret Life of Pets" is a fun Summer escapade for all ages.

Instantly relatable to pet owners (and kids who wish they were pet owners), the different personalities of species and dog breeds are, well, typecast. The goofy guinea pig, the self-involved cat, the excitable Pomeranian, the slaphappy bulldog, the stalwartly devoted Jack Russell terrier, the conniving alley cat, to name a few. The same simple dog logic of "Up" is employed here.

HEADBANGING POODLES

All is well in the uneventful lives of the New York City humans' lovable housemates (the biggest crises are the daily exoduses of owners going to work). The furry and feathered friends communicate with each other via fire escapes, air ducts, etc., and go about the mundane mischief that pets are wont to engage in in the absence of their humans: getting into the fridge, knocking things over, etc. (These pets are also a little more sophisticated, as they know how to turn on kitchen appliances, music systems and TVs.) If you saw the trailer, you must have howled (pun intended) at the elegantly trimmed, stately white poodle ("Leonard") who turns on heavy metal and begins headbanging as soon as his master his out the door.

LOST IN YONKERS

Max, the loyal terrier (voiced by Louis C. K.), is owned by Katie, whom he adores and quite literally lives and breathes for. Gidget, the white Pomeranian (who's addicted to telenovelas when her master isn't around), is madly in love with Max, who barely knows she's alive. When Katie brings home Duke, an overgrown, selfish and dopey sheepdog (looking like a monster from "Where the Wild Things Are") who moves in not only on Katie, but on Max's food and sleeping quarters, Max hatches a plan to get rid of him. While the neighborhood canines are outside being dogwalked en masse (the dogs' gossip-chatter is a hoot), Max and Duke break away and become separated from the group. And, of course, never far behind a vulnerable lost woofer in these tales are the dastardly dogged...(drumroll)...dogcatchers!

RABBITS GONE BAD

Max and Duke become entangled with the dangerous sewer gang of  "The Flushed Pets." Yes. Just like it sounds: those pets rejected by their owners (even though some species in the squad are definitely unflushable). Led by what has to be the world's most sinister bunny, Snowball: an impossibly cute, white, bucktoothed, dewy-eyed lagomorph (voiced by Kevin Hart) who is decidedly unhinged. The goal of the FP's is the destruction of humanity, viz., pet owners. Guilty by association are any pets LOVED by their owners, who meekly submit to domestication ("leash lovers"), so Max and Duke must prove their street cred.

The intensity and violence of the vengeful pets might be a bit extreme for wee humans in the audience, however, the danger had to be real for our protagonists. Needless to say, the pets from the block are determined to rescue Max and Duke, led by the smitten Gidget. (Now we not only have women saving women in films: Maleficent, Frozen, Spy--we have the princess saving the prince.) And of course, all of this is done in a day's work. The unsuspecting humans have no idea what their darling charges are up to.

MERRY MENAGERIE

The element of surprise is constant and the occasions for laughter are frequent. Not explosive, eruptive laughter, just a steady stream of unexpected giggle ripples. The gags are mostly visual, and because of the rapid chase-pace of the film, the eye is catching the hilarity before the brain rationally puts together what's actually going on.

At one point, there are three roving bands of pets on the streets--keeping the intrigue lively. Towards the end, a magnificent character is introduced: Pops, an old hound dog with wheels for his paralyzed hind legs. A few sequences could have had snappier dialogue, such as Gidget and the falcon. And Max and Duke in the sausage factory was very out of place, breaking the tension at one of the most climactic parts of the story. It felt like a strange "filler" (pun intended). (Also, vegetarians.) The voice acting is massively on point.

SWELL SOUNDS

There's some really great throwback swinging flute and Big Band in the soundtrack, reminiscent of some classy animation work of the 50's and 60's--also serving to remind us that all of this is taking place in the uber-cosmopolitan Big Apple, accompanied by the fact that the animals have New York accents.  The sights of NYC are not tiredly and routinely exploited: Times Square! Rockefeller Center! etc. Instead, we have a wonderful scene of all God's critters in a New York taxi, treks through construction sites and an organically integrated Brooklyn Bridge. That's how to use location in a film.

IT'S 10AM. DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR PET IS?

All in all, this is a strong little film that could even bear (pun intended) repeated viewings. I could also have seen "The Secret Life of Pets" work as a cartoon musical.

"The Secret Life of Pets" will get you wondering what your innocent little beasties are up to when you're not around. You may even want to hire a Pet Detective...oh wait...that's another movie....

OTHER STUFF:

--Leonard alone sold me on the whole movie.

--Here's a YouTube someone made, looping Leonard headbanging to System of a Down. You're welcome.

--The Minions' short film before "Pets" is a super fun adventure as well.


July 8, 2016

MOVIES: "LIBERATING A CONTINENT: JOHN PAUL II AND THE FALL OF COMMUNISM"



I'm going to call the latest documentary on John Paul II an "almost perfect documentary." Why is it almost perfect? Because it's Rolls Royce superclassy in every way, the production values are off the chain, the august interviewees always on point, and the analysis goes deep. The range of the historical material is vast, and yet the film manages to be meditative, fast-paced, sentimental and bracing all at one and the same time. The cinematography and beautifully restored footage are rich and intense, and the soundtrack is a non-stop, full-bodied symphony of meaning in itself.

THE SOCIO-RELIGIOUS GENIUS OF JOHN PAUL II

As the title indicates, there is nothing "small" about this documentary in its feel or scope. And the subject matter is done great justice. For JP2-aholics and documentary-aholics like myself, as well as for those who lived this history, "Liberating" adds yet more pieces to the puzzle and threads to the tapestry of the socio-religious genius of John Paul II. Did the Kremlin have a social plan? So did the Polish pope, who purposefully united himself to all Slavs of the persecuted Eastern European Church, and all citizens behind the Iron Curtain.

The film begins with a short retrospective of Communism, then on to Poland and World War II, in order to situate Karol Wojtyla's (John Paul II's) life into this reality. This is done through the technique of state-of-the-art  graphics, maps, dates, still photos, etc., that are visually effective and illuminating.

There is just so much film footage of the periods in question that we are swept back and inserted into the times and relive it all. (This footage includes film of Wojtyla's saintly, wise and courageous mentor, the great Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński.)

SOLIDARITY

Featured front and center in the workers' struggle is the Polish labor union SOLIDARITY.  The Communists' minimalistic vision of the human person was: a cog in the machine of the State which is supreme. Man exists to serve the State and for no other reason. Freedom, creativity, initiative and entrepreneurship were non-existent. Labor unions were not allowed. Workers had no rights and working conditions were often harsh, unbearable and unjust. The movie affirms: without John Paul II, no SOLIDARITY. Without SOLIDARITY, no liberation of Poland, without the liberation of Poland, no chain effect toppling of "the evil empire."

Rounding out the documentary are brief accounts of other nations (basically all of the former U.S.S.R.) following suit after Poland and shaking free of Moscow.

TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT IN CHRIST

The triumph of the human spirit shines mightily in "Liberating." A human spirit informed by and inseparable from Jesus Christ. Would Communism have "fallen" without John Paul II? Most likely eventually, but perhaps in a very different, even violent way that might have ushered in something equally as malignant. "Liberating" is intent on unmasking the fact that the resistance to Communism was primarily spiritual. The military might of the Russian Soviets could not be fought on a battlefield with physical force. John Paul II, the statesman of faith and prayer and towering moral authority, is seen as almost single-handedly inspiring the defeat of the iron grip of tyranny in his homeland.

"ALMOST" PERFECT?

Why is it "almost" perfect? Two reasons. Although the content is thorough, informative and edge-of-your-seat engaging, a few introductory sentences here and there seemed to be called for. The documentary is never exactly oblique, but it does take a bit for granted. That, for example, you understand the basic tenets of Communism. That you know who Stalin was, etc. In other words, the documentary assumes that you have a basic knowledge of 20th century world history, which, very sadly is not the case with the average person under 40. And film has become a crucially important means by which younger generations learn history! The film is only missing some rudimentary details that would have set the stage better for what it wants to tell you--but otherwise, audiences will still get the gist. The film contains many valuable history lessons. Each of them just needed a slightly clearer introduction.

But make no mistake: this is a GLORIOUS film.

PROBLEMS & BAD -ISMS

My second criticism is that, although this documentary is meant to cover a healthy slice of recent history, its relevance to today could have been majorly ramped-up at the end. There were a few mild, weak references to the fact that if you let go of your "moral and cultural roots," "freedom" will become unhinged. I would have been much more explicit. For starters, I would have defined what true "freedom" is. I would have discussed the fact that there are always ideologies and visionaries and aggressors and social engineers and absolutist/totalitarian worldviews in every age, vying for ascendancy at least and world domination at most. (Nature and history both abhor a vaccum.) I would have named the ideologies that immediately replaced Communism, while often mimicking and borrowing from it: hedonism, materialism, utilitarianism, unbridled capitalism, consumerism, individualism, atheism, agnosticism, relativism, nihilism, postmodernism, skepticism, determinism, fatalism, propaganda, scientism, culture of death, social conformism, etc.

HOW DOES A POST-CHRISTIAN AUDIENCE READ THIS FILM?

The seismic shift in understanding the very concepts of "morality" and "culture" and "roots" today (at least in the West) is not acknowledged at the end of the film. The fact that a solidly post-Christian mentality has taken hold today is not acknowledged. The meta-narrative that has replaced any kind of Christian culture is: "God and truth are not knowable. Christianity has been debunked. Religion is dangerous. Individual's desires, thoughts and feelings are true and absolute. Personal license is absolute. There are no extrinsic reference points.  Everything is subjective. Change is the method and goal. All change is progress. Progress is good. There is no meaning in the world. Each one assigns meaning to each one. Meaning is fluid. It can and should keep changing. Change is the only good."

SOLUTIONS & GOOD -ISMS

I would have laid out (briefly) the challenges before us today. I would have identified the exact meaning of human dignity and current-day threats to it. I would have explicated what it means to be human. True, the words of John Paul II captured in the film are answers for today, also--albeit in today's context--but the dots could have been connected. In a fragmented, postmodern world, nothing is supposedly connected, nothing is obvious. I would have highlighted today's need for: critical thinking, media literacy, logic, ethics, metaphysics, apologetics, phenomenology, personalism, the common good, rationality, existentialism, Thomism, philosophy, theology, catechesis, objective and subjective truth-seeking in unison, Catholicism, striving for nobility, the Church's social teaching, altruism, asceticism, family life, the true/good/beautiful, culture of life, virtues, sacrificial love, God, etc.

COMMUNISM DOESN'T WORK

The failed economic system that is Communism--so familiar to those of us who were "children of the Cold War"--is painted in stark relief: the scarcity of basic amenities like phone service, indoor heating/plumbing; cramped and ugly government housing; long and separate working shifts meant to break down the family; constant food and medicine shortages; the omnipresence of secret police/spies/infiltrators/snitching neighbors. But of all the Soviet tactics of oppression, it was the indoctrination of children apart from their parents that was, perhaps, the most insidious.

THE WHOLE TRUTH ABOUT MAN

The film is a consistent and coherent whole. I'm sure it accomplished its goal. I'm just looking it at it with the eye of a missed opportunity to educate even more strongly, and draw younger generations in to benefit from its wisdom, and see the possibility of a continuum with John Paul II's social vision. As Jesus said: "The truth will set you free." And as John Paul II said: "Only Christ reveals the whole truth about man." I would have attempted to explain: Why is it that Christ is the key?

Perhaps all that "Liberating" needs is a follow-up study guide that will ask these contemporary questions. :)

Interviewee George Weigel says: "Culture is the most dynamic force in history." If that's true, we have a lot of work to do. My answer? THEOLOGY OF THE BODY. Start there. It's what everyone cares about, where everyone lives.

OTHER STUFF:

--"Europe after the French Revolution went the way of separating morality from the public sphere, from the economy. But JP2 said that's not the only way. It's possible to take a different route where we integrate the Ten Commandments and morality with public life, with the State we want to have, with the economy we want to have, the law we want to have. That's what JP2 encouraged."

--Here's a memorable sermon during a subsequent trip of John Paul II to Poland in 1991 (he made a total of 9 trips to Poland) where he showed some righteous anger at the way his countrymen were abusing their newfound freedom--specifically regarding abortion: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/04/world/pope-delivers-angry-sermon-on-abortion-to-poles.html

--"Life is a pilgrimage toward a goal." --Karol Wojtyla's Dad

--And.....it's not over:
Trudeau pledges troops, armoured vehicles as Russia standoff intensifies (Latvia, Baltics, Poland)
#cdnpoli http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/07/08/trudeau-pledges-troops-frigate-and-jets-as-nato-faces-off-against-russia_n_10879878.html via @HuffPostCanada

--An incredible account of brutal Cuban Communist oppression: the book "Against All Hope" by Armando Valladares

"No to selfishness
No to injustice
No to pleasure without morality
No to despair
No to hatred and violence
No to ways without God
No to irresponsibility and mediocrity
Yes to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Church
Yes to the effort to elevate people and lead them to God
Yes to justice, to love and to peace
Yes to solidarity with everyone, especially the most needy
Yes to home
Yes to your duty to build a better society." 
 ---JP2

FURTHER FILM/DOCUMENTARY VIEWING:

--NINE DAYS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (JP2's historic 9-day trip to Poland in 1979)
--POPE JOHN PAUL II (feature film, JP2 played by Jon Voigt, father of Angelina Jolie)
--MESSENGER OF THE TRUTH (documentary on Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko)
--POPIELUSZKO: FREEDOM IS WITHIN US (feature film on Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko--WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY FIRST!)
--KATYN (An examination of the Soviet slaughter of thousands of Polish officers and citizens in the Katyn forest in 1940)
--THE INNOCENTS (Polish nuns during WWII)
--THE ORIGINAL IMAGE OF DIVINE MERCY (deals with the suffering of the Church in Lithuania under Soviet oppression)
--WINTER ON FIRE (Ukraine's continuing and current struggle against oppression)


June 27, 2016

MOVIES: "THE INNOCENTS"

Another film about Polish nuns and World War II! (See "Ida.")




There's a new film out about nuns. And we can never have too many films about nuns, of course. The film "The Innocents" is  about a convent in Poland in 1945, at the end of World War II, where horrors have occurred. Horrors not just from the war and the Nazi occupation, but from the newly-occupying Red Army. I won't be able to go any further in this review if I don't tell you more. SPOILER ALERT: The whole film is about the fact that many of the Sisters were raped by Russian soldiers and are now pregnant. Each Sister, from the Mother Abbess to the youngest novice, deals with it in her own way.

A SENSITIVE, NON-SENSATIONAL FILM

Why are filmmakers so fascinated by nuns and sex/pregnancy/babies? And most specifically: pregnant nuns? Do they see it as the ultimate oxymoron? The ultimate contrast? The ultimate conflict? (And in some cases, the ultimate joke?)* Thankfully, "The Innocents" is none of the above. This is a very sensitive, non-sensational film of based on actual events (and many nuns have been raped and gotten pregnant during other wars as well) that manages to wrap itself around and enter deeply into the psychology of this very pointed and specific trauma.

A young female doctor working with the French Red Cross is summoned to the convent to assist in the several births that will be occurring all around the same time. She does so at great peril to her own life and risks being penalized by her superiors. The Mother Abbess' main concern is to keep the "scandal" and "secret" quiet. Her utmost concern is the "honor" of her convent (as if they were at fault somehow!) The babies will be quietly given to relatives of the Sisters to raise.

NOURISHING CONVERSATIONS

There are many nourishing conversations about doubt, faith in God, the problem of evil, "God's will," and happiness, both among the nuns themselves and with the young doctor. Over time, most of the Sisters are able to accept and embrace the life within them (without accepting the heinous and harrowing violation).

Without a working knowledge of the Catholic Church at this point in history (and the ancient, entrenched subculture of religious life): the nuns' attitudes toward the will of God, the vow of chastity, the body, sex, the vow of obedience, authority, Providence, sin and modern medicine will definitely throw you for a loop. What???!!! The Church teaches that???!!! No. And the Church didn't even teach exactly that THEN. The good Sisters were in dire need of some Theology of the Body (fortunately, seminarian Karol Wojtyla--within the borders of their very own country, ordained 1946--would be working on that...). And who knows what kind of a life some of the Sisters had before entering the convent? How many were already physically or sexually abused? What if they had already been shattered by the War? But tucked in between all the horror is the subtle or not so subtle truth that these nuns--all such different personalities--love their religious life. These nuns know who and where they're supposed to be, and Whose they are.

HONORING TRAUMA

I would think that any sexual abuse or rape survivor would appreciate this film. The perspective is fully a feminine one (female director and screenwriters--along with male screenwriters) and the aftermath of rape and rape/pregnancy is explored in multivalent ways. One of the most poignant is that of a woman suddenly (or now in a new way) feeling terribly alienated from her own body. Never is the nuns' ordeal downplayed or shown for anything other than the egregious, monstrous crime it is. And yet, a sisterhood of solidarity and trust develops, which includes the young doctor, and they are able to support each other and even find joy in the tiny beings (of whom they are truly mothers now) who are soon to emerge.  What transpires from here I will not spoil.

"The Innocents" is styled in a strongly European strain, which is positive if you like slower-moving films, unfolding and reflective in real-time (especially at the beginning) that are not afraid to examine the human condition in its stark interiority. American films are afraid to do this, but excel at showing stark exterior realities.

GOD

"The Innocents" is a truly religious film. Religious films are about God, not the trappings of God or His human mouthpieces. The nuns are three-dimensional characters with backstories, and even the most fearful nuns are genuine in their timidity. And for all their skittishness about the body (and not just because of the rapes), these nuns are very demonstrative and huggy.

 No one has an easy life or easy answers in "The Innocents." A Jewish doctor who plays the Red Cross doctor's minor love interest is delightfully honest and unvarnished in the face of his own tragedies.

Thank you to whoever made this film: for caring about rape victims everywhere--and the lives of nuns. Thank you to whoever made this film: for telling yet one more of the millions of stories of suffering from "The Good War" and Communist oppression, dying to be told.

__________________
*See "Agnes of God," "No Men Beyond This Point," "Not of This World," "Philomena," "The Magdalene Sisters"

OTHER STUFF:

--"The only truth is His love."

--"Faith is 24 hours of doubt and 1 minute of hope."

--"When you're little, your father holds your hand. But at some point, when you grow up, he lets go of your hand--you cry out and no one answers."

--This film is partly a study of fear....

--This film is party a study of the via negativa....

--This film is partly a study in what happens when we have the wrong priorities....

--Moving Letter of a Young Nun Raped During Bosnian War Who Became Pregnant: http://www.realclearreligion.com/index_files/9700d87ecef59271ce15f9554f57fe47-436.html

--Is it weird for a nun to like nun movies?

--And I really, really like this film. It grows on ya.

--Here is my fellow Daughter of St. Paul, Sr. Anne Joan Flanagan's fine review: http://romans8v29.blogspot.com/2016/07/holy-innocents.html



June 26, 2016

NEW VOCATION VIDEO OF DAUGHTERS OF ST. PAUL!




Film on the life of our Founder, Blessed James Alberione: www.MediaApostle.com

Daily discernment book for young women: www.tinyurl.com/DailyBook


June 13, 2016

MOVIES: "ME BEFORE YOU"


BIG FAT SPOILER WARNING:
IN THE NEXT SENTENCE I AM GOING TO TELL YOU HOW THE MOVIE ENDS.

Due to the serious subject matter of the film "Me Before You" (euthanasia), and the fact that most people already know how the movie ends (euthanasia), combined with the fact that the film is based on a novel by the same name that came out in 2012, this entire movie review will be one big spoiler. Advance at your own risk.

PRETTY IN DEATH

This British film maintains the light air of a romantic comedy throughout, overlaid with tear-jerking moments and the sweetest violins. Unlike a Jodi Picoult story that explores controversial issues as serious dramas, "Me Before You" more or less accepts assisted suicide as a valid option and a part of life (irony intended). Suicide, in fact, is sexy and sweet. As sexy as a gorgeous, wealthy, young quadriplegic, Will (Sam Claflin from "Hunger Games"), and as sweet as his new, bubbly, Kimmy-Schmidt-like caretaker, Lou (Emilia Clarke from "Game of Thrones"). And it's not just our main characters that are comely, the actual moment of Will's demise is preceded by jokes, kisses, smiles and lots of sunshine pouring in the window--all set to swirling, swelling strings.

The film starts off in a sort of saccharine, almost overly simplistic way: from Will's insanely perfect life with his girlfriend to Lou's insanely ditzy existence. But this caricature-ish, one-dimensionality never quite inflates into two or three dimensions, even at the most poignant moments.

BUTTERFLIES MEETS BITTERFLIES

Lou eventually gets under the embittered and sarcastic Will's skin with her perpetually cheery, optimistic and endearing demeanor, coupled with her highly original fashion choices. The dialogue and gentle sparring is genuinely witty and charming. The plot machinations are funny. At one point, while the "superior" Will is trying to school Lou about life, Lou comes back at him with a knowing description of how the type of upwardly mobile woman Will is encouraging her to be actually fares in the end. Lou is not as dumb as she looks.

Lou finds out about Will's plan to undergo euthanasia in Switzerland in only six months' time. She and his mother (who also is hoping along with Lou that he'll change his mind) put their heads together to try to get Will to enjoy life again, get out and do things as best he can in his motorized wheelchair. Will obliges, but more for Lou than for himself. However, he is thoroughly enjoying her company.

THE SELF ABIDES

When Will finally tells Lou about Switzerland, she tells him she already knows. Will then begins to lay out before her his reasoning. He liked his old life. A lot. (He was also very athletic.) Is Will trying to say what is said of dementia patients in order to euthanize them? That he's not really "himself" anymore? Sorry. The "self" remains till the last breath--no matter what condition the mind or body is in. Will doesn't mention his prognosis as part of his justification for ending his life, but Lou gets that information from others: Will's main problem is his spinal cord which can't be fixed. He's on lots of medications and is weak and vulnerable to infections. He has recurring pneumonia. He is often in pain. In his nighttime dreams he is active once again, but wakes up screaming when he realizes he's paralyzed.

In "Me Before You," quality of life is more important than life itself. Will wants his old life back. He resists change (as horrible as the changes in his life are) and moving forward. But who can ever "have their old life back"? And for how long? In a few more decades, he will be elderly and unable to do all things he loves to do anyway.

A brief discussion about the morality of assisted suicide is put in the mouth of Lou's cross-wearing, grace-at-meals-praying mother: "There are some choices we don't get to make! It's no different from murder! You can't be a part of it," she tells her daughter. Lou is not sure if she did the right thing by refusing to go with Will to Switzerland to be with him when he dies as he had asked her. Lou's Dad simply says: "We can't change people." (True enough.) Lou had tried so hard to change Will's mind. When Lou asks in return: "Then what can we do?" Dad says: "Just love them." Her Dad instead encourages her to join Will and his parents in Switzerland. (Lou, of course, is not materially cooperating in getting Will to Switzerland--others did that--she is only "being there" for him while he knows she still doesn't agree with his decision.)

IS THIS EVEN A LOVE STORY?

The title is curious. Who is "me"? Who is "you"? Although Lou begs Will not to go through with his lethal plan, promising to stay with him, Will tells her that his mind has been made up from the beginning and that he has never wavered, not even for her. He will not stay alive for her. She brought some joy into what he has determined to be the end of his life, and he did his part trying to bring her out of her shell and get her to dream big--but this eleventh hour fling was only in the context of a promise he made to his parents: he would give them only six more months. The sacrifice (even though Lou is a well-paid employee of Will's mother) seems to be all on Lou's part. This does not seem to be a true, reciprocal love story. If he had stayed alive for her, it would have been. You can't be in love with a ghost and share life with a ghost (all apologies to Patrick Swayze). Will also hints that because they won't be able to have a married life with sex and children, she doesn't know for a fact that she won't have regret in the future for having stayed with him. Will has NO STORY ARC. NONE. Neither does Lou, really either. There are no major changes or transformations in this entire story. What is this story, then? Either it's an aesthetically-pleasing but poorly told story OR simply propaganda for euthanasia.

PRO-DEATH (WHICH IS NOT YOLO)

What is the point of this book/movie? Why was it created? To make euthanasia more palatable? "It's his choice" is stated over and over again. Yes, of course, suicide has always been a choice, an option. A very sad and tragic one, one that people choose only in utmost desperation, and one that humanity has always tried to talk and help its constituents out of. Will says: "I'm not the kind of man who can accept this." (Who can really "accept" a tragedy such as quadriplegia?) And yet people do "accept" it all the time. Look at the brilliant and drastically compromised Stephen Hawking (who suffers from ALS) who presses on with humor and an indomitable will to live, still contributing to the world of science). Although, sadly, he has evidently said he will look into euthanasia when he can no longer do what he wants to do.

There is no mention of God as the master of life and death. No mention of going back to God at death. (Although there is a belief in some kind of an afterlife when Will tells Lou he will be right by her side all through her life. Which is also strangely creepy. What if she gets married?) No mention of what dying naturally would be like (most likely he will diminish irreparably in just a few years and die naturally then anyway). No mention of redemptive suffering: the fact that suffering purifies us and can be offered up for others. No mention of the fact that we go on living till the last gun is fired. What if there are still important lessons for him to learn, indispensable bits of living still to be lived? Others who need to come in contact with him--whose lives he can grace? And of course, as believers, we would want to grow daily in our relationship with God as much as possible on this earth before we leave it.

"Me Before You" has to be classified as a pro-euthanasia film. It's like a sugar-coated poison pill. Our world is on a slippery slope to CELEBRATING suicide. What happened to helping each other live, not die? What happened to hope? Does this mean we shouldn't stop people from jumping off ledges? After all, it's their choice. "Hey, buddy! Hold it right there! We respect your choice, and we don't really care if you die or not, so just hold on and we'll get you a physician to 'assist' you...."

OTHER STUFF:

--"Me Before You" is a watershed film. In a bad way. A really bad way. It occurred to me that the whole point of film is conflict, dramatic tension, resolving seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But what if suicide begins to lurk prominently as the go-to option in cinema, in our own life? NO STORY. Yes--Will had a very challenging life as a quadriplegic, but euthanasia legislation is very, very broad and includes reasons like "emotional distress." "Me Before You" is a bold, ugly new dimension to the culture of death. (And I think people instinctively recognized this about MBY--one of the reasons the film is so buzzy--even if many can't put words to their discomfiture.)

--"Me Before You" is only one of several recent much-lauded pro-euthanasia films: "One True Thing," "The Sea Inside," "Million Dollar Baby," "Amour."

--Death can only be bittersweet when it's inevitable, not when it's a planned control-move.

--Will didn't take his own advice to Lou to "live boldly." He quit.
From Instagram:


--Toward the beginning of the film, Will makes Lou watch "Of Gods and Men" (with French subtitles) about the Trappist-martyrs of Algiers who chose to stay with the people and be killed rather than abandon their mission. Lou says: "They could have left!" (and saved their lives). Will says something like: "But their lives had more meaning because of their action" (likening it to his own planned assisted-suicide)? The Trappist-martyrs were not suicides.

--What is a "culture of death"? It is a culture that has separated body (the physical) and soul (the spiritual). It is a culture that sees death as not only a valid solution, but a good solution. Not only a good solution but the best solution. Abortion is the "loving" thing to do. Euthanasia is "dignity." War and violence are easily invoked.

--We all know or know of someone who has committed suicide. Some were terminally ill and in excruciating pain. Some were mentally ill or at their wit's end for whatever reason. Some were facing a desperate or dangerous situation or life. Some had no family or love or basic resources. Some were depressed or bullied teens. Suicide was not the best solution--palliative care (to relieve the pain of terminal illness), proper psychiatric care and medication, better circumstances or a societal safety net would have been the best solution. But they are now in God's mercy: God who alone sees our state of mind and reads our hearts. St. Therese of Lisieux (who suffered immensely at the end of her life) warned: never leave potent medication within reach of a suffering person.

--Check out this organization/hotline and other organizations for suicide prevention:  www.samaritanshope.org

--The majority of failed suicide attempts are grateful to have NOT succeeded. They were temporarily in so much pain (of whatever kind) that they couldn't see any other way out. These people go on to embrace life and help others who are feeling suicidal.

--In today's Western society, the young in particular seem to want to insulate themselves from any kind of unpleasantness, discomfort, difference of opinion, negative experience. They don't even want to hear certain words that might be "triggers." This is a mentality ripe for euthanasia. What will happen when real tragedy strikes? Illness or accidents? Won't it be simply unbearable? I'm not saying that young people today haven't suffered a lot already in their young lives--only that the best way to cope with suffering is not always avoidance. Check out C. S. Lewis' weighty little book: "The Problem of Pain."

--If you're a Christian, we have a whole 'nother take on suffering. We believe it can be redemptive. Check out John Paul II's "On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering," written after he was shot.
https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris.html

--"Take up your cross and follow me." --Jesus

--Think about this: It's human nature that when we know we don't have an easy option, we make do. We challenge ourselves. We find a way. Give us an easy out? We'll often take the path of least resistance.

--Should euthanasia be granted for any reason? Hey, it's all about choice, right? How about this one: unwanted sexual attractions. This man "doesn't want to be gay": http://www.bioedge.org/bioethics/will-belgium-grant-euthanasia-for-unwanted-sexual-attraction/11911

--WHERE DOES IT ALL END? OR IS THERE ANY END TO THE SELF-KILLING?

--This rush to legalize euthanasia everywhere (now legal in 5 U.S. States, with Canada on the verge of passing a sweeping euthanasia bill) is like a massive, worldwide deathwish.

--In its original form, the horrifying Canadian euthanasia Bill C-14 would include: "mature minors" (um, aren't children by definition not mature yet?), the mentally ill(!), and just about anyone having a bad day. It's not all about terminal illness and the elderly--as bad enough as that is. This is about death on demand. Death on tap. Society agreeing that the world is better off without you and you are better off without you. This is society participating in your suicide.

--Needless to say, the disabled community is not thrilled with MBF: "Disabled Want To See Different Ending at Flicks": http://www.pressreader.com/canada/toronto-star/20160606/281874412670125

--Quadriplegic author angry about his memoir's inclusion in 'Me Before You' via  "Quadriplegia isn't the end of life, it's the beginning of a new life...."

--Check out my friend Taylor's video:


--One of the many problems with culture-of-death solutions is that they decrease the overall value of human life in both theory and practice. And in countries like the Netherlands that have had euthanasia for a long time, IT'S NO LONGER A MATTER OF CHOICE. Are you an old person with no family to advocate for you? You're taking up a hospital bed. Bye bye.

--Euthanasia is WICKED BAD FOR THE ECONOMY. There are entire industries and jobs surrounding care of the sick, disabled and old. The only one who profits from euthanasia? Governments (more money in governmental coffers and pockets), insurance companies (no payouts/coverage) and the organ transplant industry.

--Thankfully, at least a Canadian First Nations Manitoba MP (member of Parliament) said his spiritual beliefs prevent him from voting for euthanasia, as well as the fact that there is an ongoing suicide crisis among native teens. What kind of message does "suicide is dignity" send to them? http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/05/04/robert-falcon-ouellette-assisted-dying-c-14_n_9843314.html



--So what kind of a life is WORTH living? Is it like President Obama said would be the focus of Obamacare: we'll concentrate on ages 15-55 because the young and the old need too much care?

--THEOLOGY OF THE BODY? We don't get to separate our body from our soul. We didn't put them together, we don't get to take them apart.

--Would you like to know what I really think about suicide and euthanasia? @#$%& death.







FROM THE CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH:





May 1, 2016

MOVIES: "NO MEN BEYOND THIS POINT"


A wickedly funny new mockumentary made by Mark Sawers (known for "The Kids in the Hall") is entitled: "No Men Beyond This Point." Just one look at the smart trailer lets you know this is a commentary on today's feminism--or rather, the "battle of the sexes." The set-up could have been a simplistic: "What if feminists really did take over the world?" but it's more sophisticated than that. Instead, it's an act of nature ("praise Nature") that's eliminating men.

GIRLS ONLY

Women are now "asexual" and are producing only female babies through parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilization--something found in some insects and reptiles). Without the male contributing the Y chromosome, no males are conceived, and a race of "women only" is born. The youngest man on earth, Andrew Myers, is thirty-seven years old and works as a housekeeper. Women "pair off" in mostly non-sexual, non-romantic partnerships in order to raise their children together (all girls, of course).

The mockumentary maintains an incredibly even, deadpan tone. The main interviewees are Andrew and the couple he works for: Terra and Iris.  Interspersed are other interview snippets, black and white re-enactments, real and fake historical footage. "Caught-in-the-act-please-turn-off-the-camera" moments drive the developing story forward. Iris has always taken men's "side" in her interviews. She doesn't dismiss them and feels sad that they are going extinct. Being an artist, she begins painting her one proximate masculine subject, Andrew, rather obsessively. Terra is not blind to Iris' sympathies, and the friction begins.

CAPTIVITY

It must be noted that Andrew is one of very few younger men, and also one of the few men (with a worker's permit) who is not in, well, captivity. Yes. There is a "man sanctuary" that is basically a lodge with good food, medical care, a golf course and other guy amenities. The women may have lost their taste for men, but it's not reciprocal, so, once in a while, a man will make a break for it, hungering for female companionship. Running through the woods to female civilization, he will encounter signs "No Men Beyond This Point." Why are the men being kept apart? The governing council of women (there are no more wars or separate countries: women made the whole world one big, happy family) decided that it was best to hasten evolution and corral the stragglers. In fact, Andrew is lucky to still be out and about and must play his cards carefully.

HETERO-RIGHTS

Andrew and Iris fall in love, Terra confronts Iris who admits to the fact. The women's combined five or so daughters witness Andrew and Iris kissing furtively under a tree. ("Gross!") Punishment? Andrew is sent to the sanctuary. SPOILER ALERT! (Read on at your own peril.) But there ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no river wide enough to keep Andrew and Iris apart. They go public with their plight (opposite sex marriage is illegal) and the female populace rises up in their favor with marches and slogans such as: "Celebrate Gender Diversity!" "End Manlessness!" "Make Opposite Sex Marriage Legal!" The end of the film sports a perfect twist that highlights our perennially imperfect world (I'm NOT giving away the twist).

What's on display here is foible-ridden human nature that we're all too familiar with. Some film reviewers questioned (very seriously) in a podcast whether the premise would have worked better in the dystopian sci-fi genre. Balderdash! It's hilarious. I will only mention two tee-hees here:
--One Australian "manosaurus" complains that the women have even taken their God away and replaced it with a "sheila," that is, Mother Nature ("praise Nature").
--The men in the sanctuary go on a hunger strike, but...they get hungry.

CATHOLIC STUFF

The film dwells at length (and then revisits again) Jesus' Virgin Birth, but there's really no correlation to God the Son becoming incarnate by the Holy Spirit and human parthenogenesis. I think the film was (respectfully) grappling for a punch line that wasn't there. "NMBTP" gets the Catholic stuff pretty correct. There's even an interview with an "Italian priest" who works for the "Congregation for the Causes of Saints" and had to investigate what seemed at first to be miracles--when the parthenogenesis began occurring. Even a nun in a remote part of northern Spain becomes pregnant (this really comes off as a silly "cheap shot" sequence in the film). And, of course the misogynistic, patriarchal Church suppresses all the evidence of the nun's pregnancy.

TABLE TURNING

"NMBTP" is everything a meticulous mockumentary and comedy should be. The action is never flagging. It's clever but not cerebral. It won't go over your head, it will only make you feel smart as you get the jokes. Along with nailing the style of the contemporary documentary, there is no mean-spiritedness, it's not a "message film," and there's no "unrelatable" stretches of the imagination (except the human parthenogenesis). The actors are utterly believable. Much of what is said of/to/about women today is now said of men. The tables are turned--but not to an exact and too obvious degree.

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY SEXISM

Men's and women's idiosyncrasies are both poked equal fun at. There's a lot of food for thought here--enough that it would be good for a film discussion group. And even the most outlandish features of this "broad" new world aren't all that far-fetched, at least in the rhetoric of today. What's interesting about the women is that they are not "mannish," nor are they frou-frou. They're just capable, intelligent, albeit rather bland women who don't seem to need or miss the men. The indifference would be chilling--if it weren't a comedy. And of course, it's way funnier if you know Theology of the Body.

Available on iTunes Canada. Coming soon to USA.



April 9, 2016

MOVIES: "THE ORIGINAL IMAGE OF DIVINE MERCY"


A new full-length documentary film on the Divine Mercy is now available for large or small screenings during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. It has the long and intriguing title of: "The Original Image of Divine Mercy: The Untold Story of An Unknown Masterpiece."


ALSO FOR DIVINE MERCY NON-FANS

Now. If you, like me, are one of the .0001% of Catholics who do not warm up to the Divine Mercy devotion, who are, perhaps, even nonplussed by it: this film might be just what you need. I'm calling this documentary "The Thinking Person's Guide to Divine Mercy." AND, if you do not take a shine to most or all of the images of the Divine Mercy you have encountered? That's because you probably have not encountered the original image. (Above.) 

WHAT IS "THE DIVINE MERCY" DEVOTION?

If you are one of the other .0001% of Catholics who have never heard of the Divine Mercy devotion (non-Catholics are completely absolved), it is simply this: Jesus appeared to a young Polish nun living in Lithuania in the 1930's (Sr. Faustina is now "St. Faustina") and revealed His desire that an image of His Divine Mercy should be promulgated throughout the world, with the words "Jesus, I trust in You" beneath. This "devotion" is to be accompanied by prayers to/for divine mercy and acts of mercy.  A book with the words of Jesus as recorded by St. Faustina: "The Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul" is available in many languages.

Countless numbers of people now pray "The Divine Mercy chaplet" (prayed on regular rosary beads) and "The Divine Mercy Novena." Prayers to the Divine Mercy are especially prayed every day at 3 pm, the "hour of mercy" when Christ died.

A HIRED BRUSH

Jesus told Sr. Faustina to paint an image exactly as he appeared to her. She was no painter, so she and her spiritual director, Fr. Michael Sopocko, enlisted the help of an artist, Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, who labored to get the details just right (and of course, Sr. Faustina was never satisfied, even with the final product, but she came to accept the fact that no artist could ever fully capture Jesus the way she saw Him).

A few of the important details of the original image are the face of Jesus looking down (Jesus said this was His gaze on us from the Cross), and the hands raised in an particular way in blessing while white and red rays (representing mercy) radiate forth from His unseen heart. The background is blackness. It's utterly simple and uncluttered, what one sacred art expert in the film calls: "A masterpiece of iconography. Face, hands, that's it."

THE SUFFERING OF THE CHURCH BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN

A highlight and constant of the film is the parallel story of the fierce persecution of the Catholic Church in Lithuania under the Soviets after World War II. Those of us old enough to remember the days of the former U.S.S.R. heard plenty of stories as it was happening: the beginning of the fall of the Soviet Union was 1989. The famous (infamous to the Communists) "Hill of Crosses" is also briefly featured in the documentary. Most poignant of all is the subdued pain in the faces and voices of the elderly bishops and priests (some of whom did forced labor in Siberian work camps). The story of the heroism of the persecuted Church under Soviet rule is a story yet to be told (actually many, many stories to be told). The Church had to be crushed because its doctrines were the polar opposite of atheistic Communism.

BUT ISN'T THE DIVINE MERCY DEVOTION FROM POLAND?

So why have we thought the Divine Mercy devotion was from Poland? Many Poles live in Lithuania, and there was even a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century, under common rule. Sr. Faustina was Polish, and under the Soviets, each country absorbed into the U.S.S.R still had strict borders (though these borders were not shown on many world maps of the time) that could not be easily traversed. Just as the image of the Divine Mercy began to spread from Lithuania, World War II hit, and Poland became prominent in furthering the devotion. However, Polish artists, one in particular, began doing their own altered versions of the original image, and these became associated as "the" image. There is a movement today toward restoring the original image to prominence. After  being: forgotten, abandoned, ignored, secretly venerated, sold for a bottle of vodka, kept in a priest's private residence, on vacation in Belarus and heisted by some daring nuns, the original image is now enthroned above the main altar of the Church of the Holy Spirit (where Fr. Sopocko once served) in Vilnius, Lithuania.

CELEBS GALORE

The documentary unassumingly features Jim Gaffigan, Harry Connick, Jr., Bishop Barron, three Cardinals, a slew of Bishops, priests, art and church historians (lots of women here), and those who were witnesses to the image's sojourn. These articulate folks and the entire film have a lot to say, not just about this particular image, but the role of images in our Faith in general. "Sacred icons are primarily mediums of grace." If you still don't care for the portrayal of the original image "...the image is not the object of our devotion anyway." Jesus said it's all about His grace and mercy, not the particular color or beauty of the painting.

A warm, personal theology exudes from this entire project. If you've ever given up on theology as dry, aloof, clinical, hard, cold and abstract? This film will be a fragrant balm. This is serious, profound, lived, battle-scarred, Eastern European Christianity, people.

IMAGE OF THE IMAGE

This documentary is an image of the image, in a sense. How are its production values? "The Original Image of Divine Mercy" is a contemporarily contemplative film. Cooler-than-thou acoustic guitar, the vocals of Mike Mangione and an Audrey Assad soundalike grace our ponderings. Natural lighting floating in from a window. No boring sit-down interviews. A fondness for handheld filming. A flowing fluidity to the camerawork . Most interviewees stand in their own environment or an ambience of the original image. Mostly mid-range shots and hardly any close-ups situate us in a "this is bigger than all of us and involves all of us" frame of mind. There's a connectedness with the surroundings, including the filmmakers who are very often in the shots. It has an immediate, "you are there" feel which doesn't allow us to be passive bystanders. 

The camerawork can be raw, but with a purpose. The interviews can be long, but not unedited. The filmmakers are letting people have their say, the way they want to say it, clarifying here and there with a translator: it's all captured because--like the very image of Divine Mercy--it's not perfection we're after. After each segment of interviews, we take a break and see the Divine Mercy image doing its thing around the world in public places. We see the interviewees relaxing, preparing, meditating before the image, interacting with the filmmakers in candid shots. At first I thought: there's too many "behind the scenes," but then I realized these are NOT behind the scenes at all. A sense of real life and not "show" is communicated effectively.

Two pleasing devices: uniformly stylized paintings of the interviewees , as well as stills of quotes from Sr. Faustina's Diary with a Polish-accented female voiceover, tie the narrative together. Some misspellings and sloppy punctuation in the subtitles (but not horrible)--will be corrected in DVD release in November.

What the filmmakers have created is an artistic, oral/visual historical document.

TAKE HEART

I really can't abide any of the images of the Divine Mercy I've seen (unless they've superimposed the face of the Sacred Heart of Jesus from Hales Corner, Wisconsin, on it, but then it also looks tacky), but this original image is realistic, natural, normal, approachable, pleasing.

Take heart if you don't "get" the Divine Mercy devotion. It took Sr. Faustina's own spiritual director time to comprehend it (and at least one other prominent person in the film admits to the same). This film concretizes the development of the devotion and the physical and spiritual journey of the image itself, as it spread throughout the world. And, as an interviewee sums up at the end: the journey isn't over.

For a reasonable licensing fee, screenings are being offered throughout the Holy Year for parishes, schools, organizations and events commemorating the Jubilee Year. 
Proceeds from the licensing of this film will go to foster the development of pilgrimage facilities for the Divine Mercy Shrine in Vilnius, Lithuania – the permanent home of the Original Image of Divine Mercy,

For more info go to www.DivineMercyFilm.com

"The painting is not necessary for mercy to reach the world. The Holy Spirit works anyway. But this image is a gift, a gift from Jesus. And it's something that we can touch in a very concrete way, and see, and not just have the concept from Holy Scripture about the mercy of God, but also have a very concrete illustration. This is a testimony to the will of Christ. And in giving us this image He makes known His request to fulfill His will." --priest interviewee

"Sr. Faustina said: The world is incapable of its own conversion. We must trust in Divine Mercy. Why do we talk about Divine Mercy today? The devotion began before World War II. God was warning that a war was coming. Is God warning us again? God is calling us back to God's mercy, to Jesus Christ." --Cardinal Dziwisz

"Divine Mercy is the last barrier to the spread of evil in the world." --John Paul II