March 23, 2009


"There is no charge for awesomeness. Or attractiveness." Jack Black does awesome and attractive voicing of this loveable, out of shape, noodilicious bear. There I was, thoroughly enjoying all the martial antics and Asian flavor of the movie when--Hi-YAH! (big, furry, black-and-white, rolly-polly spoiler alert)--the long-awaited contents of the practically sacred Dragon Scroll were revealed and they were...EMPTY! "There's nothing." Yes, folks, everything behind everything in this movie is nothing. As I look back at it, perhaps it was a Zen joke, but, as Randy Newman sings in the "Monk" theme song: "I could be wrong now, but I don't think so."

AFTER seeing nothing in the scroll, the Kung Fu Panda (who is the messiah-figure Dragon Warrior) sees himself. It's important that it happened in that order. A big deal is made of the fact that there is NOTHING. Then it reverts back to the Panda to reach down inside of himself and find his own strength and courage and whatnot. So, why did the Panda win out over the much more powerful Tiger-dude (who also saw the empty Dragon Scroll and believed mightily in himself)? This is not explained. There is a Kantian (unfounded) assumption here that goodness is somehow preferable. (The good-hearted Panda.) That goodness wins. That people want to be good. But if nothing's where it's at, why be good?

However, I had a revelation of SOMETHING. Earlier in the movie the cute old tortoise wisdom-figure keeps saying: "Believe! Believe!" This staple catchphrase of Hollywood feel-good movies has long irked me. Everyone from Tinkerbell to Polar Express to Elf to Prince of Egypt* uses it. Just what the hey are we believing in??? And if "KFP" is speaking for the rest of the tinseltown fare, it IS nothing!

Pretty nihilism. The whole discipline of Kung Fu and the master-student is empty. We ARE alone in the universe. Nothing is "special." "It's only special if you say it is, treat it like it is" (KFP's Dad). Nothing has intrinsic value and meaning, only the value and meaning we give it. Oh dear, oh dear.

Please hear me out. I am NOT one of those watchdogs who see subversive images and messages in every Disney animated flick. But a constant repetition of this message, or rather non-message, this omission of God, the natural law and the integrity of each thing that presents itself to us, does go into little minds. If God is so great, why can't we talk about Him? At least hint at Him? I'll never forget the kid in my mother's third grade CCD class: "If Jesus is so great, how come he's not in my history book?"

There's something very deliberate in the faithlessness of "KFP" (lack of faith in ANYTHING). Perhaps the "law of attraction" and "positive thinking" was at work here, and maybe my ignorance of the mindset required in the martial arts is coloring my understanding of "KFP" (e.g., maybe if you THINK you can break a stack of 2 x 4's with your noggin, you can). Or perhaps it's the "nothingness" of Buddhism that's suddenly being presented to KFP and his companions (who didn't seem to be aware of it before). I could be wrong now, but I don't think so.


God is not really a character in "Prince of Egypt." It's more of a nationalistic movie.


N & N is a surprisingly sweet romance. It has the look and feel of a low-budget, amateurish student film. Even the inspired acting looks amateurish, all except for Michael Cera (what a pro--this movie made me "get him" for the first time) and Ari Gaynor (Norah's perpetually drunken friend). These two probably just don't know how to practice their craft amateurishly--if that's what the movie was going for. There is real chemistry and romance between Nick and Norah. Kat Dennings plays Norah with the awkwardness of the girl longing for love who never gets noticed. Michael Cera plays the fool hopelessly in love with the girl who's only playing. Nick and Norah bond over true compatibility: they're both obsessed with music--the same kind of music. Norah sees into Nick's soul--something his cheating, self-absorbed, superficial, off-again-on-again girlfriend will never be able to do.

I'm not exactly sure what the title of the film means, but it does underline the rather perfect soundtrack accompanying the film, sometimes as diagetic (the characters hear it too), sometimes as simple soundtrack.

There's nothing rushed about this small film, AND it's really a journey film, a road trip, albeit only lurching around New York City in a bright yellow Yugo--reminiscent of the troubled yellow VW bus in "Little Miss Sunshine"--all in one night, searching for the elusive band "Fluffy."

Nick's gay friends (and fellow band members) feel like a throwback to the requisite "product placement" gay folk of a decade ago: one-dimensional, saintly, the only kindly ones, the only ones who know what love is, the only ones who can help their straight friends with their romantic troubles, etc.) There are a few religious slams: Caroline (Norah's drunken friend) "finds Jesus" at a gay, Christmas-themed cabaret where altar boys don't wear pants.

Unfortunately, very unfortunately, the sex scene mars the whole thing. It is very discreet, a highly original set-up in a recording studio, but trivial. Oh so trivial. Not only is it one of the fastest sex scenes ever, finding the band is more important. Nick can't get away from Norah fast enough, and she has to run after him to catch up. Nice. What a gent.

One line of dialogue jumped out suspiciously at me: "Nick, the Beatles had it right. No one wants to be married to you for a hundred years, they just wanna hold your hand." They don't? I'm not worth that? Life is just a one-night stand?

Kat Dennings is natural and lovely. Michael Cera is actually cute when he turns on the charm. If only the friends in this movie, so solicitous looking out for each other in so many ways, could extend that solicitude to the most intimate and sacred of human interactions (as in: wait till you're committed, save it till you're married). Seriously, the gum got more TLC.

March 17, 2009


This is an excellent book by a regular, successful businessman (ironically or fittingly, he was in the fledgling, mid-20th-century computer industry) and family man who became a porn addict and lost his job, family, everything. He has lots of good advice for recovery (but not quite as much for prevention).

He calls our nation "Porn Nation" (because the first generation who grew up with internet porn is coming of age). This is a step-by-step profile of how it happens (and it doesn't happen overnight). He also makes some chilling predictions about the future:

1. hypersexual media content +
2. enabling technologies =         
3. sociosexual pathologies in a great number of what would have otherwise been sexually well-adjusted individuals

The author now devotes his life to taking his anti-porn message to college campuses and all around the country (even debates reguarly with ex-porn star Ron Jeremy). He has been on Oprah.


Save your shekels and get it. I realized this is the most economical way to buy books. I had been buying them used on Amazon, but $3.95 on Kindle for a $19.95 hardcover? AND, best of all EVERY book you buy also doubles as an audiobook because Kindle will read it to you (out loud or with headphones)! (The female electronic voice sounds more human than the male voice.)

There is also BASIC WEB on the Kindle 2! You can surf and do your email (mostly text-based sites). Very strong signal that works EVERYWHERE.

They also changed the horrible design where you had to hold it by the corners or you'd keep turning the pages hitting the long page-turning bar. AND the power button is different so you don't keep turning it on inadvertently. AND the battery lasts for hours, especially if you keep the wireless turned off unless you're using it. It's also super-flat and super-light. You can almost use the QWERTY keyboard like a regular keyboard (instead of texting-style with your thumbs.)

It holds 1,500 books. (The old Kindle held about 200.)

I feel like a traitor because this is killing the book industry, not helping it. But it is SO cheap and convenient, especially if you travel and read a lot (I do both). Authors and booksellers get a PITTANCE for each book sold on Kindle. Amazon refuses to say how many Kindles have been sold.

March 15, 2009



Stem cell policy shift brings a sinking feeling

John Kass
12:07 PM CDT, March 14, 2009

When President Barack Obama signed his executive order to allow human embryos to be mined for their stem cells in order to help older, more powerful humans, there was much excited applause.

The applause came from so many, their eyes bright, lit as if from within. It came from those who believe in scientific progress as the answer to the problems of the modern world, believing as fervently as any monk on the slopes of Mt. Athos believes in the Resurrection of Christ.

In signing the order last week, the president said that the Bush administration, which strictly limited such research, had offered a false choice between science and morality. He said his new order "is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda—and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.."

There it was. Ideology, a pejorative applied to faith, offered up during Lent by our president.

John Kass John Kass Bio | E-mail | Recent columns

As a Greek Orthodox Christian, I'm troubled by all of this, as are many Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others who are taught by the faiths of our fathers that life is sacred. And I know there are many who belong to these faiths and see nothing wrong with stem cell research.

But many of us watch in quiet horror as America rationalizes the conversion of life into a medical product to further other lives, as our culture ignores the cost to our humanity.

Proponents of stem cell research dress themselves in pure reason, as a counterweight to what is often unfortunately referred to as religious superstition (Obama's "ideology"), but there is something about the political selling of it that speaks to a salvation of sorts, too, particularly for our loved ones whose bodies would be helped by such research.

Science for the scientists, yes, but perhaps more than that for those who hope such research will provide much-needed cures. So more human embryos are cracked open, the life inside them used to protect us from diseases, including Alzheimer's disease, now stalking the once-youthful but still politically powerful Baby Boomers.

The applause washed over Obama all week, from biotech investors and especially pro-abortion rights groups, because if embryos are a product fit for dissection, it follows they are property, not life. Naturally, establishment media editorialists and political writers praised it, even supposedly neutral news accounts trumpeting this as a victory of light over darkness.

"It's a difficult and delicate balance," said Obama. "And many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about or strongly oppose this research. And I understand their concerns and I believe that we must respect their point of view. But after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. ..."

He is a gracious man trying to be reasonable, fulfilling a campaign promise. Though I disagree with him, I've always felt the decency in him. But as he spoke, I couldn't help but think of someone else.

The drowning man.

When I was a boy about to go swimming with my friends, I was warned about the drowning man. And just then I knew, with the rapture of scientific certainty, that President Obama was also warned as a boy.

It may have come from his mom, or grandparents, or some camp counselor at the edge of the water, an adult responsible for his safety. The kids knotting up in groups on the shore, sand hot on their feet, bright sunshine overhead, eager to jump in.

We all were warned, each of us, you too. As parents, my wife and I told our boys, and Barack and Michelle most likely have told their girls. All kids lucky enough to grow up and become parents will warn their young if they have even the slightest sense of responsibility.

You stay away from the drowning man.

The drowning man isn't an individual, exactly.

The way I remember things, it was the figure of a man drawn in some first-aid pamphlet of long ago, a dangerous hieroglyph thrashing in the water, threatening those who approached.

The drowning man wasn't evil. He wasn't good. There was no history to him.

His dreams and kind acts didn't matter. His betrayals and bitterness weren't counted against him. If he had any sins, their residue wasn't apparent in his expression. There was no face, at least not one with clearly defined features.

Only a head and arms waving in the water, the drowning man going down.

The grown-ups told us that when you're swimming and you see someone struggling and thrashing, you call for help. You might extend a towel or a shirt as a rope. But you don't go near, because you might get grabbed.

Panicked, the drowning man wants what all life wants, to continue. He can't comprehend that he's pushing you down to push himself up. It's not his fault. He's afraid. He's drowning. He's dying.

But we're all dying, aren't we? And what happens to us, as we take other lives, in order to live?">

June 2008--June 2009 Year of St. Paul

"St. Paul is not a stern wielder of the sword, but the most ardent and tender lover of Christ. He has a mother's heart that loves immensely, and a father's heart that give unqualified support."
--Blessed James Alberione, SSP, Founder of the Daughters of St. Paul & the Pauline Family

Sr. Helena Burns, fsp

Daughters of St. Paul / Pauline Books & Media
172 N. Michigan Ave. Chicago, IL 60601 USA
facebook: helena burns
skype: helena.burns.fsp
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March 13, 2009


Wikipedia defines a documentary as an attempt to visually express and document reality. "The Complete Film Dictionary" defines it as a film that deals directly with fact and not fiction, that tries to convey reality as it is, instead of some fictional version of reality. "Brothers at War" comes as close to this definition as any documentary I've seen. (Wikipedia admits that "documentaries" are continually evolving with no clear boundaries, but if we are thinking "traditional" documentary, "Brothers" is it.)

At first, I wasn't able to put aside the immorality and illegality of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but filmmaker Jake Rademacher "disarmed" me, because "Brothers" is more about family than it is about war, or rather, a story of war that is woven into a story of family. This is simply NOT a political film.

Jake is the oldest of five brothers and two sisters from a close-knit DeKalb, IL, family. He had planned to join the Army like his brothers Isaac and Joe, but bad eyesight made it impossible. He got into acting instead. "Brothers" is, in part, Jake's quest to see "what might have been" in his own life as he goes to Iraq to film Isaac, Joe and their fellow soldiers in action. He is also interested in winning his brothers' respect and wants to show the rest of his family (and the world) what his brothers are doing "over there." Jake's narration is humble and insightful with an open, straightforward Midwestern sensibility. He inserts himself into the story sparingly. "Brothers" is almost about the war tangentially, or only insofar as it matters to his brothers, which of course it does. It seems to matter to Jake only secondarily.

Nothing truly sensational transpires beyond the tedium and danger of a long war made of up IED and sniper attacks, surveillance, community PR, and a matter-of-fact death or two (some sanitized, some not). The pacing and editing are consistently engaging. Flashbacks to the Rademacher boys as kids is wonderful. They have continued their tactile playfighting, jokes, and hugs into adulthood. Jake tells his family's story in a non-dramatic, unemotional way. I've never been so touched without crying. This is a war documentary made by a sensitive guy. He is determined that he and his brothers are not going to "grow apart" emotionally, and he'll do whatever it takes—even follow them to Iraq—to make sure that doesn't happen. Jake's quiet strength and other-giftedness (the arts) are his gift to his family that they will treasure now for generations.

There is just so much love in this family, so much other-centeredness and thinking about and looking out for each other. I wonder if they realize that this is their true greatness? Do they know how LUCKY they are? The whole family, including parents, have their say, but it's the brothers who are the focus. How Rademacher made this film so objectively and yet so intimately about his own family with their full cooperation is truly amazing. If the Rademachers had been any less remarkable, this film would not have been possible.

Jake gets nicknamed "Hollywood" by the troops, and he looks truly out of place in Iraq. Jake admits he's "soft," but he doesn't care. As the oldest, he seems to hover protectively over his family, even describing helping out with his siblings when he was growing up as "parenting." What better way to hover than with a camera? Jake is the nostalgic one of the family. He seems to want to draw them all around him forever: "If we know our brothers better, maybe they'll never be gone from us." The fear of Isaac or Joe getting killed is always lurking, especially after having lost one of his five brothers, Thaddeus, when Thad was age 20 (not war-related).

Isaac comments that Jake embedding with troops on a five-day mission will help him find what he's looking for, the heart of the American soldier, and it is then that we catch soldiers jawing about the usual: girlfriends and wives; why are they doing this, anyway?; their love of America and freedom; and one young man sums up: "It's confusing: I'm home for a year, away for a year, home for a year. I love the adrenaline rush of kicking doors down, but I love my family, too." The love extends to the Iraqi people and their struggle. One wisecracking New Yorker is assigned to train Iraqi forces, and for all his impatience with them, he really cares. The camera captures a certain simplicity and child-like innocence in these neophytes, and even our Yankee tough guys are a bit gentled by their genuine, unmasked humanity. The Americans seem to be actors, cowboys, philosophers, and well-trained/well-disciplined warriors, while the Iraqis seem to have more spontaneous reactions of fear, joy and pride. The contrast is often comical.

There is something wholesome about this documentary. U.S. snipers eat M & M's as they do their job, and it doesn't feel the least bit wrong or surreal. Either Jake just sees these episodes as the banality of wartime duty, or he's a masterful propagandist, getting us to swallow anything. I think it's the former. I've read and watched other accounts of both Iraq Wars from very different, darker perspectives, but that doesn't make Jake's perspective any less real or true. For the most part, Jake shows us what is truly good in the "American spirit," in our American military, in his brothers. What's true and real is the love at the core of his family, and each military "band of brothers." A love "stronger than death." And a love story in wartime trumps all other stories. Or so we were taught at UCLA. There is another kind of "brother" and family here as well, that is, the brothers in arms—that camaraderie that we women just don't have. These guys worry more about each other getting killed than themselves. They know they will be friends for life. They know that nobody but these "few," these "happy few" understand.

One young soldier say: "I would give my life for America any day. I wouldn't think twice." And he means it, and he knows exactly what that means now, and he just might have the chance. Most amazing of all, and I have heard this since the beginning of the Iraq Wars from those serving in the military: they don't seem to care whether people back home understand or appreciate what they're doing. What matters is that they know why they're doing what they're doing. So that people may live free. So that people may be free to criticize the military or kill themselves eating too many hotdogs. One soldier even says: "There must be chaos so that others may live in peace." There is honest talk of the less altruistic motivations: military are higher caliber people to be around, make Dad proud, I didn't want to get stuck in my little town, etc. In the end, most soldiers agree it's all about family. They do what they do for family, even for the baby girl who may not remember who you are when you return.

Gary Sinise executive produced, "Special thanks to Jon Voight" (why???), Metanoia Films distributed (Eduardo Verastagui's company, star of "Bella")

THEOLOGY OF THE BODY--This is textbook men's spirituality, from their own lips. My problem with war is that first of all, it is blowing up other human images/temples of God (that we drone on and on about in religion). How dare you? Who gave you the right? And second, I think war takes that natural, good impulse of men to guard, protect and defend their families, and then actually takes them AWAY from their families, and they begin to be almost permanently directed away from their families OR are so damaged when they return to their families that they no longer know how to or are incapable of being directed toward them. In short, war is a big lie, whispered in men's ears century after century.

March 12, 2009

March 10, 2009


"Theology of His / Her Body"--two-books-in-one--by Jason Evert is one of THE best TOB books out there!!! Written for teens, but ANYONE will benefit from this lucid, straightforward, book that goes right for the most sublime, beautiful truths of the Theology of the Body and makes them easily understandable in no time. I have no idea how Jason did it! This is a fantastic introduction to TOB, but it will keep you pondering, marveling, agreeing with it, and living it for a long time! Available from


March 2, 2009


"Changeling"--the kids

"Slumdog Millionaire"--the kids

"The Wrestler"--the people buying meat at the deli

"Changeling"--the serial killer (Jason Butler Harner)

"Tropic Thunder"--the special effects guy (Danny McBride)

"Gran Torino"--Thao (Bee Vang)

"Happy-Go-Lucky"--Scott (Eddie Marsan)