Hitch

Hitch (Will Smith) is a romantic comedy about  a New York “date doctor” or “consultant” who advises guys on how to get to first base, and then maybe second or third, with a girl.

 

Hitch won’t take on just anyone, however. He turns down a financial executive, Vance (Jeffrey Donovan), because he makes it obvious he only wants to use women, not woo them in view of a commitment.

 

Then, across town, there’s a gossip columnist, Sara, (Eve Mendes) who is following the romantic fortunes of a rich girl, Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta) while advising her friend Casey (Julie Ann Emery) to avoid a man who doesn’t take fidelity seriously.

 

One of Allegra’s financial brokers, Albert (Kevin James) falls hard for her and hires Hitch to help him get a date. Sara is following Allegra…

 

Do you see where this is going?

 

Hitch is a predictable romantic comedy, but so what? I went to see it with my younger sister and her husband and my nephew and his wife and we all enjoyed it. My sister said she thought it was good because it avoided clichés. I liked the multicultural aspect of the film. The film is directed by Andy Tennant who also directed Sweet Home Alabama and Fools Rush In – all watch-able romantic comedies (Fools Rush In is fun to analyze: there are signs everywhere…).

 

Hitch has issues because he masks his vulnerability; Sara has issues because she trades in gossip but isn’t very forthcoming herself. Allegra and Albert? Just because a girl’s rich doesn’t make her brave and just because a guy is short and chubby (and a really nerdy dancer) doesn’t make him a bad catch. In the end, well, you’ll have to see it. The reason the film works is because it stays light, it stays human and the characters grow and change for one another.

 

Go forth and enjoy.

 

Oscars 2005: My Guess List

Oscars 2005: Who will win? Here’s my best guess list based on buzz as well as the quality of the productions. Sometimes I may not like the message or subject matter of a film, but it would be impossible for me to ignore its artistic or emotional impact. I did not see BORN INTO BROTHELS but have read about it and heard about it from friends; AUTISM IS A WORLD is another one I didn’t see, but a favored topic (as is the Holocaust, e.g. SR ROSE’S PASSION but I am taking a guess here…). I have seen all the other films. So here is my guess list:

 

BEST PICTURE
Ray
 

ACTOR
Jamie Foxx, Ray

ACTRESS
Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby
 

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
 

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Natalie Portman, Closer

DIRECTOR
Martin Scorsese, The Aviator
 

FOREIGN FILM
The Sea Inside
 

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Born Into Brothels
 

DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)
Autism Is a World

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Finding Neverland
 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Vera Drake

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
The Incredibles

FILM EDITING
The Aviator
 

ART DIRECTION
The Phantom of the Opera
 

CINEMATOGRAPHY
The Passion of the Christ
 

COSTUME DESIGN
Lemony Snicket’s…
 

MAKEUP
The Passion of the Christ

 

My Oscars 2005

Given the nominations, there are no clear front-runners for any category, except Best Director, which I think Martin Scorsese deserves. However, I live in hope. I have seen all these films except BORN INTO BROTHELS, SR. ROSE’S PASSION and THE CHORUS, but I am going by what I have read and heard from friends- which can be risky, true, but I am hoping for the best. I eliminated a couple of categories because I hadn’t seen nor heard of them before. I think the following deserve Oscars:

 

BEST PICTURE
Finding Neverland

ACTOR
Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda
 

ACTRESS
Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby
 

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Jamie Foxx, Collateral
 

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett, The Aviator
 
 

DIRECTOR
Martin Scorsese, The Aviator
 

FOREIGN FILM
The Chorus
 
 

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Born Into Brothels
 

DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)
Sister Rose’s Passion

 

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Motorcycle Diaries

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Hotel
Rwanda
 

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Shrek 2

 
FILM EDITING
The Aviator
 

ART DIRECTION
The Phantom of the Opera

CINEMATOGRAPHY
The Passion of the Christ
 

COSTUME DESIGN
The Aviator
 

MAKEUP
The Passion of the Christ

Constantine

 

John Constantine is a Vertigo/DC comic book hero who came into being in 1985. He is a supreme “mage”, or magician, part scoundrel, part good guy.

 

In Constantine the movie (2005) Keanu Reeves plays a kind of anti-hero, a Catholic named John Constantine (note the initials JC), who as a young man committed suicide but hell didn’t want him. He is still roaming the earth, seeking redemption. He has a wry sense of humor and a really bad smoking habit; in fact it’s killing him again.

 

As a child Constantine kept seeing things and his parents had him undergo shock therapy thinking he was mentally ill. The trauma of these treatments drove him to kill himself; but after a few minutes in hell he was back on earth, alive. Now he spends his time tracking down the half-breeds, devil-like creatures who tempt us but belong in hell, where he sends them back. They do not seem to be devils, angels, or human. And they are really, really mad at John for rounding them up and returning them to eternal damnation.

 

The film opens when the Spear that pierced Christ is discovered in Mexico and a man-like creature brings it to Los Angeles. We are then introduced to John as he carries out an exorcism that by comparison makes the 1973 film The Exorcist look like a walk in the park.

 

Meanwhile, a cop named Angela (note the name) has a twin sister, (both played by Rachel Weisz) who commits suicide. John, as a police consultant, is called to the scene to figure out if she is a suicide (and in hell) or if someone pushed her, thus making this a homicide. Angela and John work together to solve this mystery throughout the rest of the film. (Is she John’s guardian angel?) All the action that follows happens in a hospital and the back of a bar in the seediest, darkest part of  that only a movie could create.

 

Constantine continues in an almost incomprehensible plot of bad theology and horror that involves an alcoholic priest (naturally) and that Spear. You have to like Constantine and Angela though – they are easy on the eyes; Peter Stormare makes one of the best devils I have ever seen and provides much of the humor – as the film is ending.

 

Constantine as a theological exploration of good and evil,right and wrong, heaven and hell, God and Satan, makes Kevin Smith’s Dogma seem like a Sunday school or CCD (=Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) lesson straight out of the catechism.

 

Constantine seems Catholic, but looks are deceiving. As a Catholic I have to ask – what is the film really saying about Catholic Christianity? Kevin Smith in Dogma questioned the faith he had been taught as a youngster; I think the film writers here are working from assumptions they have about Catholicism but without any understanding of Catholic Christian theology. No one bothered to check the facts. More than anything, this makes the film seem lazy to me.

 

Research, folks! Make the film at least plausible on some level. What or whose vision of reality is this rooted in?

 

Generally, I like comic book movies made into movies. Daredevil, X-Men and X-Men 2, Van Helsing, Hellboy and others use a Catholic visual and theological context in an entertaining, comprehensible way, even when you can’t follow the plot (Van Helsing for one). In Constantine the imagery is Catholic, the theology is a mess, and the plot mired in supernatural horror and despair. Not only is the image of a benevolent God missing, the true nature of God, the human person and his/her relationship with a benevolent God and others is obscured beyond recognition. Yes, John is capable of goodness and self-sacrifice, so we assume others are, too. But if he is some kind of savior (which I think the writers are trying to indicate by the end of the film), wow, are they confused about the balance in creation that is re-established when the grace of Christ’s passion and death is bestowed unconditionally on the human person, indeed on humanity, when a person repents and makes restitution. Suicide is objetively wrong, but responsibility is entirely subjective. Therefore, the question of sin and repentance is something we must leave to God and the person.

 

Los Angeles, the City of Angels, like New York, is frequently the site of good old disaster movies; to me this movie is a disaster from both a cinematic and theological perspective. The only angel we see who made it past the test at creation, Gabriel, crashes and burns (well, is de-winged.) Here, only Fallen Angels need apply. The film is pessimistic, dark, dank and frankly, I was mostly repelled.

 

A colleague told me that the suicide theme is just a plot devise. Of course it is; what bothers me is that the characters and action are entirely driven and dominated by the idea that the Catholic Church believes that God condemns to hell people who commit suicide. Before Vatican Council II (1962-1965) it is true that the Church would not bury people who committed suicide in consecrated cemeteries because of the social and cultural stigma and ignorance associated with suicide. But with a greater understanding of the human person and a deepening of the understanding of God’s mercy, this idea, teaching and practice, changed completely. It is therefore unfortunate that the mistaken notion that people who take their own lives are unequivocally condemned to hell because of suicide is perpetuated  in a pop film such as Constantine.This is what I regret the most in addition to the religious horror which is simply not my style.

 

Other colleagues hold that the film will engage college students, and well it might. Males, that is. Ladies, this is not a film that will appeal to most of us because of the explicit horror. The twinges of humor, as when Constantine flips the devil the bird, hardly balance the unrelenting and pervasive ugliness of the film. I wonder what viewers will talk about, with a cinematic God who is so uncaring and distant from the lives of men and women as to not show up in person or through an agent of grace, and the devil, who is so near and powerful? Is this a deist or an extreme Calvinist view of the world, or a hodge-podge of uncertainty straining to be creative? It is a year since The Passion of the Christ was released; is this the kind of religion Hollywood (well, one studio in Hollywood) thinks is a worthy sequel to release at the beginning of Lent? I admit, I wrote and continue to believe that The Passion of the Christ belongs to the horror genre, giving the genre and the film their due. Poor Constantine, however, makes horror look bad.

 

Or is the violence and extreme horror of the film a “Christian” guy thing? Do tell.

 

Plot wise, the film is in trouble from the beginning. It doesn’t know what it wants to be about: the Spear (this plot could have worked for me even if it, too, is not accurate according to traditional Christian theology) or John Constantine’s futile search for redemption because he has committed suicide. Nothing he does will save him, and it doesn’t look like God is very interested either.

 

A friend of mine wrote this to me today about another film:

 

           Didn’t Flannery O’Conner write: It is what is   

           invisible that God sees and that the

           Christian must look for? This is to say,

           the first task of writing/teaching is to

           help folks picture the invisible.

 

The filmmakers of Constantine have given us a visual theological smorgasbord ofso much that is not true and made redemption look hopeless to me. Is this really what the invisible looks like? Christians, all people of good will, keep looking. The devil is not more powerful than God; the devil is not equal to God. The film can be interpreted to be saying this, I think, and this is the most troublesome aspect of the film. It reduces the theology of the redemption to a simple black and white proposition. Horror films reduce the battle between good and evil inthe same way and for some this is cathartic. This religious horror film, however, seems like a true oxymoron rather than an insightful journey into faith.

 

But I will say this. Hell makes for a much better movie visually than any vision of heaven (What Dreams May Come tried both). If you want the “bejesus” to be scared out of you, then welcome to comic book hell.

 

___________

Here’s what the Catholic Church really says about suicide. I don’t expect Hollywood to do our work for us as people of faith. Hollywood’s job is entertainment and our job is to talk about it, unpack what it produces, try to discover the human and divine, and hopefully influence movie makers of the futureto promote the dignity of the human person in beauty, truth and goodness. Constantine just misses the boat.

 

 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church online

http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc.htm

Suicide

2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master oflife. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

2325 Suicide is seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity. It is forbidden by the fifth commandment.

 

Because of Winn-Dixie

Because of Winn-Dixie is the story about a lonely little girl and the stray dog she adopts, their adventures, and especially the friends they make, over one long summer. 

 

Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) rescues Winn-Dixie from the dog pound (she names him on the spot at the supermarket where he is joyfully wreaking havoc), takes him home to her preacher father (Jeff Daniels) who only reluctantly agrees to keep the orphan Winn-Dixie until the owner can be found. The preacher is a sad man whose wife left him and Opal years before. Opal continually asks him about her mother, but he only speaks of her when he finally has no choice. Opal and Winn-Dixie have a lot in common.

 

The truth of this film is, if you want to know the story, read the 2001 Newbery Award-winning book by Katie Di Camillo by the same title. If you are even an average reader, it won’t take you much more than an hour. This is not to negate this favorite ‘tween novel, however. Because the film stays so faithful to the book, it can be characterized as quite literate and the scenes are like chapters. What brings the story to life is the sparkling little new-comer AnnaSophia Robb and Winn-Dixie who actually does seem to smile (not clear how much computer finessing went into those scenes but they are funny; the kids in the audience loved it every time that dog’s mouth turned up into a silly grin.)

 

Do you ever remember a long, lonely summer, riding your bike along rural roads when the air barely moved and your friends seemed to have all gone away? The film captures this ethos and longing for friends very well. The acting on the part of the supporting cast, Cecily Tyson, Eva Marie Saint and Dave Matthews is rather average – with Dave Matthews speaking voice sounding much better than when he sings in the film.

 

The movie has charm and moral lessons galore: forgiveness, the consequences of alcoholism, the pain of being misunderstood and alone, being kind when you want to be mean and so forth.

 

There is theology in the film as well. Winn-Dixie is a symbol and means of grace for Opal and everyone they meet. Miss Franny, an elderly librarian played by Eva Marie Saint, gives Opal a special candy made by her great-grandfather after the Civil War. Not only does Miss Franny deliver a succinct commentary on the immorality of war, but the candy makes its way to all the characters and has a special ingredient that helps them understand themselves better so they can open up to friendship and community. I thought of Baptism and the Eucharist a lot as I watched this film.

 

If you saw the movie Ray, you will have noticed the frequent shots of bottles hanging from the trees. It’s interesting that both Ray and Because of Winn-Dixie take place in northern Florida, and both use this symbolism. Here’s a commentary on this tradition by Stephen Altman, the production designer for Ray

 

“We used an old sharecroppers plantation that still had most of the outbuildings intact. . . We also put in a “bottle tree” in one of the yards, which was used quite a lot for transitionsin thefilm. I had seen one of these in Mississippi, a few years earlier and it was intriguing. There are many versions about their African/West Indies origin. Some say they hold the souls of the white plantation masters, others that they keep the bad spirits or “ju-ju” away.

 

(From RAY: A Tribute to the Movie, the Music, and the Man, Foreword by Taylor Hackford, Preface by Jamie Fox New York: Newmarket Press, 2004, page 63.)

 

In Because of Winn-Dixie the bottle tree has special significance to the almost blind Gloria (Cicely Tyson) who hangs the old liquor bottles because they hold the “ghosts” of her previous alcoholism and they remind her of the good changes she has made in her life.

 

There’s a lot of transformation, forgiveness and joy going on in this film. I hope that all the people who want to encourage wholesome, pro-social, literate movies for children and families will give it their wholehearted support.

 

(I am not saying grown-ups will be riveted by the film, but after all, it’s not about us, is it? Or maybe it is – just a little bit.)

Hide and Seek

After Dr. David Callaway (Robert DeNiro) discovers his wife’s (Amy Irving) body in the bathtub, with her wrists slashed, he decides that he must move outside of New York for the sake of his daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning). She has been in therapy for several weeks after her mother’s death, and her doctor, Katherine (Famke Jansenn) a former student of David’s, doesn’t think it’s a good thing to do. But they go anyway.

 

David and Emily move an hour north into a huge house on the lake. It is winter, and the surroundings are bare and cold and the realtor, sheriff and the neighbors seem strange. Emily seems to be in a trance, and she dumps her favorite doll in favor of playing games with a new fantasy friend, Charlie.

 

David doesn’t understand this and writes about it in his journal. He also has Emily write in a journal. David wants the best for his daughter so he asks a nanny Elizabeth (Elizabeth Shue) to bring her charge over for a play date. It does not end well.

 

I don’t think I can go on any more here without giving away too much. This is a sharply defined psychological drama with the usual thriller motifs and plot devices. It falls just short of horror – and a lot happens in the bathroom, where any person feels the most vulnerable.

 

When I saw What Lies Beneath, I scoffed because it was so obvious it had borrowed from every psycho-horror thriller than came before. Hide and Seek does use some of these, too. There are hints of Rear Window, a lot of Fatal Attraction and Psycho, a little from Don’t Say a Word, and even a touch of Sleeping with the Enemy. And yes, you will guess who done it before the end – but the end is not the end and that’s all I will say on the matter.

 

Dakota Fanning is amazing. Her acting is consistent and frightening. Robert DeNiro seems to be playing against type here and we like him. But watch the relationship between the two carefully. It’s not as connected as it may seem,

 

Make no mistake, this is a gory, psychological thriller. Hide and Seek is definitely watch-able if this is your genre.

 

_______

 

Not to put too serious a spin on an “entertainment”, I often wonder what psychological dramas say about the human person. At times there is confusion between illness and evil doing – or the need to turn a person into evil incarnate. Perhaps, however, these kinds of films are more psychological for the audience than they are in themselves because they become a “space” where we work out not only psychological issues, but relationships, freedom, responsibility, morality and ethics – and who the “other” is in our lives. But most of all, these are films about fear.

 

 

The Work and the Glory

The Steed family moves from Vermont to Palmyra, New York in the late 1820’s. Once there, they settle on some land outside of town and start to clear it for farming. The two older sons, Nathan (Alexander Carroll) and Joshua (Eric Johnson) are attracted to Lydia (Tiffany Dupont) the daughter of a shop owner. The work is difficult and Mr. Steed (Sam Hennings) hires the two Smith brothers, Joseph (Jonathan Scarfe of ABC’s 2004 telefilm Judas) and Matthew (Colin Ford), to help.

 

Before long, the Steed family hears rumors that Joseph has seen angels and has buried gold on his land. Joshua, who is very sweet on Lydia, argues with his father over his independence, leaves home and joins a bunch of rabble-rousers who end up stalking Joseph.

 

Meanwhile, Nathan questions the good-natured and hard-working Joseph about his visions and the gold tablets. He comes to believe in Joseph, as do his mother and sister. Mr. Steed, however, is adamant about his family’s links to Joseph and fires Joseph and his brother, Matthew. When Joseph’s Book of Mormon is published, Steed refuses to have it in the house.

 

But a day is coming when Joseph is going to call believers together, and this sets the rest of the film in motion – including who gets the girl and who gets to follow Joseph. We are never sure what Joseph believes in.

 

The Work and the Glory has good production qualities but is a thinly veiled fiction about Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons – based on a series of novels popular among Mormons. When my sister and I were thinking about seeing it we checked RottenTomatoes.com and the write-up for the film from Excel Entertainment is somewhat disingenuous: “Two of the Steed brothers contend for the favor of a wealthy merchant’s daughter, and they find themselves on opposite sides of the religious question. As the family struggles to smooth the contention, they find themselves twistedinto deeper issues of family loyalty and the pursuit of truth.”

 

So we went to see it only to discover that the film is about more than “a religious question” – it’s an attempt to present a very sympathetic and romaticized version of the life of the founder of the Mormons without a lot of detail. It preaches religious tolerance, and this is always a good thing. But it doesn’t encourage critical thinking because we never find out exactly what Smith stands for; maybe that’s what the filmmakers want. The Steeds just follow the charismatic Smith (the one with the shining blonde hair)  to a feel-good ending. And aren’t we a happy family – but happy about what exactly? I think audiences are smarter than this film gives them credit for. At least I hope so.

 

One thing that bothered me was that the film seemed to smoothly promote that Joseph Smith believes in God as Christians do, and that Joseph’s beliefs are found in the Bible. But in reality, Mormons are not Christians in the theological or technical sense because they do not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ – though they believe he is God’s son.

 

The film didn’t last long in the theaters, but one comment on ww.imdb.org made me smile. It said that that this isn’t as boring as other church films he saw on mission. That’s true. It wasn’t boring.

 

I don’t want to seem unkind. It just wasn’t the movie I thought it would be from the write-up. When my expectations are not met, then I am always a little disappointed. And when it seems I am being presented with the whole picture when I am not, well, that’s irritating.