One last entry before my retreat begins…

Paparazzi is the story of a new movie star: Bo Laramie (Cole Hauser). He is new to fame, new to the industry, etc. With his newfound fame, come the paparazzi.

The paparazzi plague him and his family, especially four of them who seem to have really evil intent. They follow Bo, his wife and child one night and in a scene that reminds us of what it might of been like for Princess Diana’s last night, cause a terrible accident that leaves Bo’s son in  a coma and his wife injured.

Bo ends up in therapy for anger (!). One morning when he is buying coffee in a little shop in Malibu, a shop worker hugs him and one of the paparazzi takes a photo. Bo wants to strike out but instead leaves and on the way home, stops along a cliff road to call his therapist. The paparazzi has followed him, gets into an accident, and when Bo has a chance to save him, the paparazzi threatens him, and after a moment of hesitation, Bo lets him fall off the cliff and die.

Thus, Bo starts to eliminate the three remaining paparazzi one at a time.

A Colombo-like detective kind of figures things out as he tries to solve the mystery of the murders.

The problem with this film is how it justifies revenge and how the producers of the film, Icon Pictures, Mel Gibson and Steve McEveety, could have taken on such a project that promotes such brutal, violent revenge (and getting away with it), right after The Passion of the Christ.

I don’t get it. Did they not even stop to ask themselves “What would Jesus have done in these circumstances?” I doubt he would have done what Bo did and then flaunt it as if to say, “I sure taught those guys a lesson and kicked them in the a_ _ !”

To me, this is the whole problem with contemporary religiosity: the split between Sunday and the rest of the week, or how we can profess faith and make a movie about it, and then turn around a make a movie that competely promotes and justifies the opposite: immoral behavior.

This is the problem with violence in film; the movie promotes violence as a way of life and as the way to solve problems. There is certainly nothing remotely redemptive about this film.

What would Jesus think?

Wouldn’t the better film have been one that figured out how to stop the paparazzi in a non-violent way? That’s a film I would love to see.

Just more violent films cluttering up the cultural landscape.

No thanks.


Finding God in the Dark

Just to let you know that I won’t be posting any entries for new films until November. Right now I am in Rome and will begin the Spiritual Exercises, a 30-day retreat, on September 29th. This is a silent retreat, including electronic silence. For the members of my religious community, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, though we do make a week long spiritual retreat once a year.

If you are interested in reading up more on the Spiritual Exercises as designed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 1600’s, google the term “Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.”

Our publishing house, Pauline Books & Media ( is publishing a book soon called Finding God in the Dark, that puts together popular film and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Here is the announcement; be well and pray for me as I will for you.



Film can be profoundly spiritual. This stunning new book uses fifty-two popular films to engage the reader on a significantly personal and transformational journey through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which have, since their establishment in the sixteenth century, influenced countless millions to discover a personal, passionate, and intimate spirituality transforming their lives and cultures. This invaluable resource shows us how to make watching a movie a deeply contemplative experience.


Full Review

People today are shaped by film and television. When we watch a film, we are not just being entertained; we are exposing ourselves to narratives that define what is possible for us, and we often incarnate those possibilities. In Finding God in the Dark, John Pungente SJ and Monty Williams SJ guide you through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius as you watch 52 popular films that are available at your local video/DVD store


Watching these films “the Ignatian way” becomes an act of contemplative prayer and self-reflection. St. Ignatius lived 400 years ago, but his approach to spiritual growth has transformed history and culture to the present day. Ignatian spirituality uses the imagination to present our world and ourselves to us in new ways by revealing the dynamic presence of God that is constantly communicating with us.<o:p></o:p>


Finding God in the Dark offers a rooted approach to developing a spiritual life and a personal intimacy with God, providing an easy-to-follow format and various options for using the material.


Key Featureso       The book’s introduction includes a concise and helpful explanation of what the Spiritual Exercises are, and how to make them, as well as a reflection on “Cinema as Church.”

·        The book is divided into four parts corresponding with the Four Weeks of the Spiritual Exercises:

o       Part One: Discovering God’s love

o       Part Two: Channeling energies into a personal relationship with Christ

o       Part Three: Accompanying Christ’s love in the face of suffering and death

o       Part Four: Celebrating the triumph of God’s love and working together to transform the world through acts of love<

·        Within these parts, the readers are led through each “day” of the exercises, with scripture quotations, the “grace” to pray for, a reflection on the Ignatian theme, and questions for personal prayer and reflection.<

·        Then, a movie is offered as a means for contemplating this theme. Movie sections include a film summary, questions about the movie itself, questions relating the movie to the day’s theme, and questions relating the movie to the reader’s own prayer experience

The Shawshank Redemtion

What a wonderful idea: to bring back the film version of Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption on its 10th anniversary.

The loyalty between friends is a the most esteemed value for young adults today – ask any college student, soldier or gang member.

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) develop a friendship based on integrity, respect and interior feeedom within the confines of a maximum security prison in the 1940’s. Andy is wrongly accused and Red is doing his time. How they both achieve interior liberty and physical freedom makes for one of the best-told cinema stories of all time.

If you haven’t yet seen this film, put it on your list. The themes are not for young children; this is for mature adolescents and adults.



-spoiler alert-

I was looking forward to Wimbleton as a light romantic comedy. Instead I feel like I got a film without a second act.

The very watchable Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind; A Knight’s Tale) plays Peter, a pro tennis player who is ranked 119 in the world. Kirsten Dunst plays Lizzie Bradbury, an American pro tennis player. Both are in London to compete at Wimbleton. This is to be Peter’s last competition; he is considering a job as a tennis instructor at a country club.

And both are staying at the Dorchester, London’s premiere hotel (one wonders how Peter can afford it.) Peter gets a luxury suite; he knows it is a mistake but says “o well” and takes the key. When he enters the room, Lizzie is in the shower and doesn’t seem surprised at all to see him. The flirtation is on; she has noticed him before at other competitions.  We discover this meeting is probably not by accident (though we are never sure if it is probablilty or not; a plot line left hanging – probably.)

The first half of the film does a little to set up the second half, but spends most of the time getting the two main characters into bed with each other – and it succeeds here. The second half is about how sex has freed Peter to win Wimbleton, and Lizzie to lose. Even for a romantic comedy, it felt like the writers took short-cuts.

After all, there is no second act here.

Lizzie is a character without character, but maybe that’s because the film truly belongs to Peter. We get to meet his family, and they add interest and humor to the film… it would have been more fun to spend more time with them; the romance was so unbelieveable, even for a film that necessarily compresses time and events into two hours, that it seemed annoying.

I did enjoy the sports/tennis metaphor for life, how sports parallel and mirrors life and relationships and builds character. But the use of tennis, which like golf is becoming a less socially exclusive game, to parallel competition and tension between the male and female characters, just didn’t work for me. I didn’t care about Peter and Lizzie as a couple; but I did care about Peter and his family.

Sorry, but I was disappointed.

I usually have a very hard time with films that have more than one writer. This one has three and it makes you wonder how hard they had to work to save – or spoil – the original script. Don’t mean to be harsh, but I expected more.

Suspect Zero

-spoiler alert-

Suspect Zero stars Aaron Eckhart as Thomas Mackelway, a disgraced FBI agent who is moved to an obscure field office in New Mexico and assigned to find a serial killer. Thomas is seeking redemption from his failures, and so is the suspect. Both seek the serial killer and they end up chasing each other.

The always excellent Ben Kingsley plays a former FBI agent,  Benjamin O’Ryan, who is actually some kind of phantom because he is supposed to be dead, or non-existent. He, too, is seeking redemption from his failures as an FBI agent who was supposed to save and protect people, but was not able to do so.

Thomas chases O’Ryan only to discover that it is O’Ryan who is chasing serial killers and murdering them in an effort to reach Thomas. But why? Because he discovers that he has been psychologically programmed to search and destroy killers by the government. And so has Mackelway, only he has to go on this journey to hunt O’Ryan to find this out.

This is where the film falls apart. It’s already a well-formulated redemption story, but add in the conspiracy theory and you start to wonder if it is in competition with The Manchurian Candidate.

Another factor that works against the film is the intense and gory brutality and violence. Also, I can understand using religious imagery as some kind of metaphor for redemption, but if this is the case, it’s incomplete. We don’t have enough back story for O’Ryan to have the imagery make useful sense to the plot.

I can also understand the survivor’s guilt of agents who are committed to a task to help people and who fail. But this is a top-heavy treatment of the subject. It opts for gore and violence to visualize the inner conflict of the agents, but its lack of subtlety on every level left me squirming in my seat and aching to leave the theater. And that’s the last thing a filmmaker wants.





Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair is based on the 1847 novel by British author William Makepeace Thackeray. It tells the story of young Becky Sharp, a poor orphan who goes from the charity of a boarding school into life as a governeness and professional social climber.

This film is a rich, colorful historical drama that will remind some audiences of  Merchant Ivory books-into-film. Vanity Fair is a commentary on the social issues of the era when status was the key to an economically secure marriage for women especially.

The one complaint I have about the film is that it ends too abruptly. We see Becky’s choices, her dissatisfaction, her marriage, husband and child, her failures and then we skip ahead several years for a fleeting moment when we see Becky’s fatigue with life, a glimpse perhaps of an awareness of her chosen path has led her. But then, well, Becky’s final choice does not even seem consistent with her character’s development (though the events may coincide with those of the novel; I don’t know because I haven’t yet finished the book.) Regardless, the film concludes too quickly for it to be a completely satisfactory experience.

But if you are looking for an highly visual film, Vanity Fair would be it.However, I thought Princess Caraboo treated the same subject with more depth and  I cared more about the characters.

Raise Your Voice

Raise Your Voice is Hilary Duff’s new film about a teen girl, Terri,  whose brother (Jason Ritter) is killed the night of his high school graduation. She bought him two concert tickets for a graduation gift, but at the family party that day, her brother sasses his dad (David Kieth) and is grounded.  Terri convinces him that they should sneak out; on the way home, a drunk driver kills him and puts Terri in the hospital..

The back story to this is that Terri loves to sing in the school chorus and at church. She wants to go to a summer music camp in Los Angeles, but her dad says no. Her brother makes a DVD of her to send in to the music school to help her be accepted. She is, but the letter comes after her brother’s death and she has stopped singing. Her mother (played by Rita Wilson) and her Aunt Nina (Rebecca De Mornay) conspire to get her there without her father’s knowledge.

Raise Your Voice is about speaking up for yourself (as Terri learns to do with her father) and lifting up your voice through song and instrument. There is a huge moral conflict in the film about lying to get what you want that is never quite resolved. Some parents may be uncomfortable with this; on the other hand, the scenario presents a way for teens and parents to open communication and talk about important values such as telling the truth, dealing with guilt, death, discernment, choices, consequences. The guilt Terri feels for the death of her brother is more than a dramatic plot point; things like this really do happen. Kids make decisions that though deceitful seem “innocent” enough, and then when something bad happens through no fault of their own (being hit by a drunk driver) causes tremendous guilt because: if only we hadn’t gone to that concert. True enough, but the one who caused the death of her brother was the drunk driver, not their ill-conceived and ill-fated decision. Who helps kids deal with the morality and moral fall-out for situations  like this? Their parents first of all, but there needs to be communication andmutual  respect for this to happen.

Terri goes to the camp and with another musician (played by Oliver James) they compete for a scholarship.

I used pink to make this journal entry, because the first audiencefor this film is tween females. However, the complex issues raise the age level and are important for all families to talk about. The music camp creates the wholesome context for the story to play out.

I loved the musicians (especially the violinist) and the gentle humor in the film provided by the goth pianist, the geeky drummer and the one teacher who looks like he is straight out of the Adam’s Family. John Corbett makes an excellent teacher; in fact, teachers as mentors is another positive theme in the film. I also liked Oliver James (What a Girl Wants) as the teen romantic interest; I hope he gets a chance to move out of this kind of role into something that can showcase his dramatic skills a bit more.

Another aspect of the film that will interest a large segment of this audience is that it seeks to make the practice of faith a normal part of a teens life, and the cross Terri  wears around her neck is significant as well.

Napoleon Dynamite

What a lovely surprise of a film. Was high school really so much like hell? Napoleon hangs in there, and as he muddles his way through life with a repressed older brother and a perpetually adolescent uncle (while grandma is away), exudes the beauty of friendship in a performance that is its own reward – and he doesn’t even seem to notice.

It was so refreshing to see such unselfish characters in this small, odd little movie. It’s funny. I felt like nothing was ever going to really happen, and then when it does, all I could do was smile.

Not sure what the religious imagry signified. Any ideas out there?

I overheard some young kids about 12 and 13, tell their mother on the way out of the theater, “See, Mom? I told you it was funny.” “It was really good.” And mom agreed.

Alas, I am a non-teen, and I enjoyed it, too.


Garden State

Garden State is a gritty/lovely surprise of a film written, directed by and starring Zach Braff (Scrubbs).

I should call this series of entries to my movie blog “the vacations series” since I went to see it with my sister last weekend, too. We were to Borders first and when we were checking out (bought a copy of Vanity Fair) we asked the young sales assistant where the theater was in the mall and he asked what we were going to see. When we said Garden State, he said,Awe, that’s so good. I’ve already seen it three times.”

We knew then that the film would be worth it.

Zach Braff plays an artificially numb young man who has been estranged from his family for almost ten years. Because of a tragedy when he was young, his psychiatrist father has him on every tranquilizer known to man. He goes home from LA for his mother’s funeral and meets up with his old pals, two of whom dig graves and zone out at night with every kind of illegal drug known to man. 

Zach has headaches and goes to the doctor after the funeral. There he meets a young lady played by Natalie Portman, who seems to be a compulsive liar. Over four days, these two people make a funny, and touching journey to discover the meaning of their existence.

Zach Braff as Andrew hits all the right notes of young adult angst, only there is nothing artificial about the reality of his quest; Natalie Portman as Sam seems annoying at first but morphs into a character who is on as much of a journey as Andrew.  She’s such a promising actress. Peter Sarsgaard as Andrew’s high school friend Mark “works” off the grid (e.g. illegally) and is a societal fallout but he’s got a hold on one true thing: you cannot take wealth with you. Without realizing it, and hardly by following his own belief, he teaches Zach to live now.

This film deserves more commentary and at least one more viewing. It also deserves some consideration by the award-givers.

Garden State is a film that taps into young America’s search for meaning. At the end when Andrew asks Sam over and over: what do we do now? All I could think was: they’ll find the answer because now, together,they have hope and that life, for its own sake and for love for others, is worth living. The film also questions the relevance of traditional religion – because the characters do not have any connection to the traditional faiths of their families. As a person who is a member of a Catholic community of sisters who tries to build bridges between faith and life, I would suggest that clergy and pastoral ministers look deeply at this film to see what we are missing in our desire to share the joy and meaning of our believing.

Garden State gives me hope that 2004 won’t be an almost entire sweep for  most disappointing films in a long time. 

Don’t be offended by the language; it’s a device. The drug use is troubling, but then, it is a symptom of the emptiness of our time. This isn’t a film that glorifies “bad behavior”; it’s about recognizing the elephant in the living room. Human existence cannot stand a vacuum; we will seek to fill it.

Put Garden State on your list.

Open Water

This relatively short drama about a married couple who are abandoned while on a diving trip in the Caribbean is quietly terrifying.

The pre-release hype seemed to make it a real-life JAWS; but JAWS was a summer blockbuster about fear based on a novel; OPEN WATER is a low-budget cinematic look at relationships, blame and forgiveness, death and dying, and fear engendered by real life. The film asks what we might do in the same situation: the couple was stranded because they were late coming to the surface after their scuba dive, but worse still, the boating company’s employees failed to account for all the divers. So they left and the couple was left behind.

I doubt if the filmmakers realized that by moving the action from off shroe Australia to the Caribbean they made the people responsible for the catastrophe two black men and a woman. I would have wished for a little more creativity since they were fictionalizing the story anyway.

The film worked for me though I would have liked some final commentary about the questions that linger after the original catastrophe and the consequences for the boating company and the families of the couple.

(Confession: since I had never seen JAWS all the way through – I have a healthy respect for the ocean and ocean tragedies are scary for me – my sister and I rented the video and saw it before going to the movie. She had seen JAWS before, but you know, she screamed more than I did. OPEN WATER is not about sharks, it’s about what people do in impossible, unthinkable situations.)