July 30, 2009


For Immediate Release
July 22, 2009

Hollywood Above the Line

Act One Mourns the Loss of Kerry Brown,
WP 2000

Please join us in praying for the repose of the soul of Kerry Brown, an Act One alum from the Summer Writing Program, 2000 and for his family.

Wake and funeral services were held last Friday in Chicago at the Gatlings Chapel, 10133 S Halsted, IL followed by the burial at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Chicago.

Brian Bird, part of the Act One Faculty and Mentor to Kerry  remembers his friend in the following message.

When I received the email Sunday morning, July 12, I felt the universe tear a little bit. Just two weeks earlier, I had spent hours on the phone with my friend Kerry Brown, going scene by scene through his director's cut of his first independent film, "Leaders." We talked about pacing and how to cut around some not insignificant sound and continuity problems and moments where his actors felt they knew better than him how to play those moments -- which clearly they didn't. But mostly I told him how proud I was of him for not giving up on his 9-year dream to direct a film he first conceived in Act One as a member of the Class of 2000. It was a script I mentored him through way back then, and then again a year ago when he found an angel to put up enough money for him to make it more than a student film.

Kerry was a frail young man physically. He had suffered from a relentless pulmonary condition and congestive heart failure for a long time. But he was not frail of spirit or optimism. He was a spiritual lion. A devourer of scripture. Conan the Interceder. Because of his physical condition, he was not always able to work, so during his sick days and all those midnight oil hours, he wrote scripts. Several completed screenplays. Epics like his script about the rise and fall of Atlantis, and another battle royale between heaven and hell after the fall of Lucifer to earth. He learned the challenges of trying break through the iron gates of Hollywood from a Chicago vantage point. Sometimes his dream dimmed during his post-Act One years because nothing seemed to be working for him. He experienced what we all experience no matter what our level of achievement. That Hollywood is not called "Show Friendship," it's called "Show Business." That it's junior high with money. That you have to start out with the understanding that getting a film made is nearly always impossible. And that the only way anybody ever gets one made is by chipping away little by little at the impossibility until one day they wake up and they are saying, "Action."

"Leaders" is not a perfect film. Kerry was beset by all the problems any filmmaker is hit with, no matter what the budget. Production issues. Location issues. Weather issues. Actor issues. But there is a raw power to this little film because it bubbled up out of his heart as a young African-American man raised in marginal circumstances in a big American city. He had an unmistakably good eye for composing his shots and moving the camera. And there is an autobiographical thread here as his hero, "Hope," tries to survive the tides of sex, drugs and violence of life in the projects while clinging precariously to his faith in God. He did not shy away from the profane, or the sacred, so this is not a vanilla film. It's red. Red on white.

I told Kerry I wasn't sure if there would be a buyer for his film because it's a little too raw for a faith-based church marketing campaign. And it's a little too faithful for the schizophrenic home video distributors who can't decide whether they are in or out of the faith business. But I told him I would try to help him find somebody to take "Leaders" to market when it was ready for prime time. He didn't flinch at my long list of notes or that there was still a lot of impossibility at which we would have to chip away.

However, he did tell me that he might have to work with his editor, Joel Kapity, from a hospital bed. He was never quite sure when the lungs would fill or the fluid would build up around his heart. He said it with such a gleam in his voice, I thought he was joking. And then I received the email from his mother, Jayne Johnson, on Sunday, with the very sad news that Kerry had passed away on Thursday. His heart had finally given out at just days after his 29th birthday.

I don't know now how to compute why God takes some, and leaves others who don't deserve to stick around. Or exactly how to resolve the idea of a young man who fought great odds in his life to reach a dream that at least by the world's measure of success he didn't live to see finished. Or what becomes of his very personal little film. Perhaps the digital age will preserve Kerry Brown's eye in democratic cyberspace for a thousand years. But I do know this. He blessed my life more than I'm sure I blessed his. And I'll always be thankful for the way he signed off all our calls or emails: "I love you, Mentor."

Perhaps it is Show Friendship after all.


July 19, 2009


The amazing half-blood death-eating princess actress HELENA Bonham-Carter!

The Harry Potter juggernaut continues to delight with "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." This installment gets off to a slow start with lots of tangents and a lack of momentum. (This might be because it's an adaptation. Readers always say there is so much in the books that's left out in the movies.) But we don't much care because we know it's going to be good. The actors portraying the three main characters, Harry, Hermione, and Ron, continue to endear and manage to look like they're still in high school. We feel the screws tightening as Lord Voldemort's evil attacks mount and gain strength. Hogwarts School is now subject to tight security. But friendship and young love can flower anywhere and does.

Some of the funniest moments and sweetest touches are the budding romances. Young people should see HBP just for these parts! Too bad every romantic comedy doesn't charm like this. There are mispairings, jealousies, longings and general lovelornness. Ron Weasley eats too many chocolates infused with a love potion intended for Harry. Two girls fight over a recuperating Ron in his sick bed. All of this while being schooled in the intricacies of how to be a powerful wizard without ever resorting to the dark arts, black magic, wrongdoing, evil. Of course, here's "the rub" when it comes to HP.

As Christians, we know that NO magic is good magic or so-called "white magic," or "natural" magic like Wicca. Sorcery is not make-believe. It's real, comes from "below," and is never to be used, even for "the good." Thus, many Christians have shunned the HP books and movies all together. Other Christians maintain that lots of classic fairytales and folk stories contain witches, spells, etc., and that we just need to make sure children and youth know they must never dabble in it themselves. I'm somewhere in the middle on this, because HP presents the use of magic BY young people in such a modern and compelling way, that it seems to me extra precautions need to be taken. However, if I were a parent, I would definitely accompany my child through this cultural phenomenon (allowing them to read/watch), not because it's "inevitable," but because I would want my kids to be equipped to reach the culture, their peers with the Gospel, and that would mean engaging WITH the culture. J. K. Rowling says that she is a Christian, and she has certainly embedded Christian virtues in HP: obedience, love, kindness, truth, loyalty to friends and family, heroism, sacrifice, bravery, etc.

Many of our favorite characters re-appear. Snape (still looking like Trent Reznor twenty years on) is still a bit of a mystery, and we are introduced to all kinds of new gadgets, devices and creatures in Rowling's enchanted world. More and more layers of information and backstory are dispensed. There are some truly Tolkien-esque moments when Dumbledore seems more like Gandalf than himself.

There is a real apprenticeship going on with Dumbledore and Harry. Harry is "the chosen one" (chosen to defeat Voldemort's evil), but he is still young and has a lot to learn. The HP series teaches that none of us can go it alone. Each one plays their part, however humble. Everyone has a strength and a gift that the others need. The professors at Hogwarts know that evil is tricky and that constant vigilance is needed, but they also have to know and trust who is on their staff. They truly form their students to use their consciences and abilities well in difficult situations. HP teaches that love is greater than fear: Harry's mother sacrificed her life for Harry, and he stands ready to make the same kind of sacrifice. Harry is not afraid of his nemesis, Voldemort, or to say his name, as some of the adults are. Truly, our worst enemies are ourselves. As Dumbledore tells the students: YOU yourself can be the worst weapon of those who seek your harm.

Whenever I watch an HP movie, I reflect that there is a REAL spiritual warfare going on around us at all moments: angels, devils, sin, grace, death, eternity, heaven, hell, etc. Do we teach young people this reality in their religious education? Do we stress it? If not, it seems to me we do them a great disservice. They're clearly interested and up for the challenge.

July 3, 2009



First off, if you don't like loud noises or violence, don't even go to the cinema NEXT DOOR to "Public Enemies." "Public Enemies" is a gun fest. A shoot fest. A machine-gun shoot-fest. If you have a good, strong heart, you'll be fine.

"Public Enemies" is not, however a gore-fest. You'd think it would be with all that shooting. The only thing I didn't buy in PE was the constant point blank, direct-line-of-vision shooting-with-no-barriers and no one even gets nicked? C'mon! Everything else I bought.

Johnny Depp, with his guy-liner and first becoming hairdo in a long time (on- or off-screen), captivates in that slow, smoking way of his. He's got a bit of a drawl and even looks a little like a very young Elvis. His character is somehow sympathetic (excuse: horrible childhood; charm: he's nicer to the gals than the guys, is calm, cool, collected and witty), but not out-and-out glamorized. Because he comes off as totally sane, we can forget he's a cold-blooded killer. And I do mean cold. HUGE body count, LOTS of innocent bystanders (this might be another thing I don't buy. Really?) Although he's not a Robin Hood,* he's kind of desperate, so we start to see the cops and FBI as the enemy, too. Dillinger being played by America's box office offbeat male sweetheart doesn't hurt to get us on Dillinger's side either.

Dillinger's total confidence in himself and a carefree future (he was so close), combined with his criminal genius makes him outshine the often bungling law enforcement. But let's remember that the lawmen think twice before THEY shoot. They are a bit like lambs led to the slaughter in some scenes. A young J. Edgar Hoover (the always astonishing Billy Crudup--another chameleon like Depp) is building up the FBI and his own career. Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is the "star" FBI guy, who knows and has what it takes to bring the lawless down. John Dillinger is the prize for both of them. Purvis brings in a crack team from Texas and Oklahoma to do the job. In a sense, these hardened outlaws CREATED a lean, mean "scientific" FBI machine. Both Dillinger and Purvis seem to have the same character trait, or flaw, of pushing too hard, pushing others too hard and never being able to "let go." Dillinger committed a kind of suicide by the risks he took. It was reported that Purvis actually committed suicide in 1960, but that's under question.

What's even more sinister than watching one reckless individual? Watching the birth of the mob: syndicated, systemic, "coast to coast," organized crime, that is so tough it doesn't even need guns, just phones. Dillinger and his ilk are passe. At 31, Dillinger is already an old-fashioned crook. Perhaps the mob crime boss was Dillinger's real nemesis--if the FBI hadn't gunned Dillinger down, perhaps he would have done away with him (inter-state laws being passed on account of Dillinger were redounding on the mafia).

Dillinger's love interest, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), is portrayed as a rather innocent coat check girl. In real life, she associated with criminals even before Dillinger, but she was no Bonnie (of Bonnie and Clyde). What does she see in Dillinger? Someone who truly loved her. He never lied to her. It's almost as though their love story happened on an island. She wasn't part of his bloody sprees, and they love each other in a vacuum that has nothing to do with "that other part" of his life. There's definitely a woman's touch in the story here (one of the screenwriters is a woman). He was her hero, and indeed, Dillinger was a hero to many Depression-era Americans. But as members of today's mob admit, the Feds will always get you, it's just a matter of when.
"Public Enemies" speaks to the contradictory American spirit: so proud of our rule of law AND our scofflaws. We want "just the facts, Ma'am," and are pragmatists, BUT we love to escape into unrealistically optimistic fantasy worlds. Maybe it's just part of being human.

Set in Chicago (I watched it being filmed!) by Chicagoan, Michael Mann, a notoriously meticulous director, PE is a solid period piece, and I was eager to see it because:
1) I love Chicago.
2) I love Johnny Depp's acting.
3) To see what "they'd do with it."
But I don't really care about John Dillinger or criminals in general. They just don't do anything for me except turn me off.

In the end, Dillinger and his gang, like the much-feted "Sopranos," are just a bunch of thugs, out for illicit personal gain and an eventually easy life. The really exciting man is the working man, doing the right thing. The honest thing. The hard thing. Every day. (See "A Bronx Tale," "Norma Rae," "On the Waterfront," "The Great Debaters.")


--Populous, authentic-looking cast! (Found out later why: the cops are real cops, the reporters are real also--cast by "detailist" Mann himself!)

--Don't ya just love the dapper FBI--fighting crime in those gorgeous suits and hats? Far cry from S.W.A.T. gear.

--Johnny Depp is such a great actor. Such a chameleon. Great actors can act with just their eyes. Depp can act with just his irises.
--Remember "The Untouchables" TV series with Robert Stack? Wasn't that in B & W in the 70's?

--Southern blues, gutbucket and jazz soundtrack. Nice.

--Some accents, instead of sounding like those old-time American radio broadcasts, just sounded British.

--Johnny Depp and John Dillinger have the same initials. (Like Jim Caviezel and Jesus Christ.)

--Go to http://www.imdb.com/ to catch all the cameos and itty-bitty parts. Did you see Diana Krall? Channing Tatum? LeeLee Sobieski?

--There's really not much of a story-line. JD holds up a few banks and gets killed. But the ending is terribly ironic: life imitating art. The gangster watches a gangster movie and then goes out and lives it. And at this point, he even looks like Clark Gable (with little moustache), and you can see Billie's resemblance to Myrna Loy also.

--Wonderfully shot in lots of close-up, extreme close-up and some mid-range and long range. Reminiscent of "The Insider," but without being in the constant "extreme closeupness of the foreheadless people."

--But if the real Dillinger loved Billie so much--what was he doing with Polly? (They were lovers.)
--I still don't get why the FBI shot Dillinger up and didn't arrest him? Did they just lose it in the heat of the moment?

*Actually, wouldn't he be just the opposite from a Robin Hood? Stealing little people's hard-earned money for himself? People that might be just scraping by?

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