Mad Hot Ballroom

Mad Hot Ballroom is a wonderful full-length feature documentary about several teams of 11- year olds from New York City public schools who learn ballroom dancing and then compete in a city-wide contest.


Many reviewers and film critics say it reminds them of Spellbound, the documentary that follows five or six young people go from local spelling bees to nationals. I enjoyed Spellbound very much, but it had nowhere the magic of Mad Hot Ballroom, probably because ballroom dancing is a team endeavor rather than an individual quest, and though both require talent, spelling is a skill and dancing is an art.


Mad Hot Ballroom is about community and growing up in New York City’s five diverse boroughs (although I didn’t see any from Staten Island!), about looking another kid in the eye and doing something that can make a person so vulnerable – dancing in public. The film calls our attention to how the kids develop communication skills, and lay the foundation for positive relationships in the future.


We see so many sports movies as “metaphors” for life; it is a joy to see a film that introduces the movie-going public to a contemporary educational program that celebrates the arts and encourages kids to use dance for a metaphor for life – and they get it.


The film cuts back and forth between comments of teachers and conversations between the kids (still strictly in boy and girl groups characteristic of early adolescence) about what dancing means for them. The children come from a variety of home situations, some difficult, and some arenew to the U.S. I liked the way the filmmakers folded in views of the neighborhoods, the homes, churches, and street markets. Having lived in New York City for 13 years, it felt like home.


In 2004 a program was introduced into NY City schools – a ten week program to teach kids ballroom dancing. The teachers are provided by American Ballroom Theater. At the time the film was released this year, 60 schools are enrolled in the program and it is a requirement for 6,000 students. And what a gift it is. Teachers and parents see how their children mature and take responsibility; we hear the kids talk about relationships with the opposite sex, and their dreams for the future; we only see one boy drop out of the program. The kids are articulate and some are quite sophisticated – they seem to know life a little too well for their age.


When the film begins the course has just begun at five schools, and follows through some of the learning stages. It must be in March because there are shamrocks on the walls of the practice rooms and halls. It focuses then on the quarter, semi-finals and finals, including the dance for the Challenge trophy. It’s easy to guess which school will win because the camera seems to love those dancers (each school wears a different color sash so that the contest is a rainbow competition that celebrates the kids’ ethnic diversity as well as the cultural diversity of the dances.)


I admit that I was moved several times during the film, and as the kids danced the tango (Argentina), merengue (Dominican Republic), foxtrot (?), rumba (Cuba), and swing (USA), my feet were moving, too.


The film is tastefully and artistically directed, written, and filmed by women: Marilyn Agrelo, Amy Sewell, and Claudia Raschke, in that order.


If I could vote for an Academy Award winning documentary today, this would have it, hands down. I just loved it. Go see it and take your friends. If you liked Strictly Ballroom, Shall We Dance (Japanese or U.S. versions), or even the less popular Dance with Me, you’re sure to be entertained and inspired by Mad Hot Ballroom.

Turn Beauty Inside Out Conference

On April 18, 2005 I had the privilege to participate in the 2nd annual “Turn Beauty Inside Out” Conference held at the Universal Hilton in Los Angeles.  The purpose of “Turn Beauty Inside Out” (  is to “Promote healthy body image and expand the definition of what makes people beautiful!”


“Turn Beauty Inside Out” is sponsored by “Mind on the Media: inspiring independent thinking and fostering critical analysis of media messages.” (For more information visit or email


Actionist Manifesto


Before the panel I was to be part of started*, I sat in on one of the sessions between entertainment and advertising professionals and the young women, mostly adolescents, who were present. At the end they came up with an Actionist Manifesto: a list of what they would like entertainment and advertising executives to do to make better media and what they can do regarding how entertainment media represents girls and young women. Here are the lists, from my notes.


                           The TBIO 2005 Actionist Manifesto


What girls want to see from entertainment and advertising executives:


               Women with clothes on

         Girls wearing age-appropriate clothing

         More ethnic diversity on television and in movies; we want to see ourselves, not only in black and white but with diverse hair types and bodies with different shapes, sizes

         More athletic women, toned and strong; we are tired of flimsy, stick-figured women and girls

         Women who are not so perfect, like when they wake up from bed; show sweat running from their faces; more realistic images of women and girls

         We are sick of stereotypes; the way it is, if you are black you have to act in a certain way; we don’t want to see black women cursing or acting goofy for no reason

         Different cultures

         Real life

         Women in politics

         Girls doing age-appropriate things; real 15 year-olds for example

         More independent women; non-girly and girls who are courageous, honest and bold, confident and intelligent

         More complex girls who live in real families and respect their parents

         Female characters with personalities we can relate to – with character flaws

         Smart girls who are empowered and can say what they think

         Listen more to your audiences

         Take responsibility for your shows, movies and ads

–    Find stories that are not being told


What girls can do regarding entertainment media and advertising:


         Write to actresses and express likes and dislikes

         Write letters to studios expressing likes and dislikes and why

         Girl-cott a show or a product; find ways to raise our voices and be heard

         Support the shows we like; tell our friends, write letters to actresses, studios, networks

         Log-on and tell executives why we like or don’t like their shows

         Don’t support movies with negative images and messages

         Write or call when we like a movie or show

         Teach others how to respond to entertainment and advertising media

–     Identtify and follow your passion

–     Patronize movies about girls, like Because of Winn-Dixie and Raise Your Voice; shows like Joan of Arcadia that have characters like Grace; a movie like Bend It Like Beckham that shows girls who break the rules, take risks and respect their family.


My remarks for the panel discussion on Media and Social Change can be found at


Charlie (Jennifer Lopez) lives in Santa Monica, CA and has a variety of jobs. She temps for a doctor, caters and walks dogs to support her dream to become a fashion designer. One day she sees a young man jogging on the beach; they make eye contact. Later she sees him at a coffee shop and they finally meet at a party. He is Dr. Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan) and they start to date.


Kevin’s mother, Viola (Jane Fonda) is a prominent television personality who has interviewed celebrities for years. She is told she is being replaced and while interviewing her last guest, a rather clueless Britney Spears-type singer, Viola attacks the entertainer and has a nervous breakdown. When Viola returns home several months later, Kevin brings his girlfriend Charlie home to meet her. This is bad enough, but when Kevin proposes to Charlie in front of his mother, and Charlie accepts, Viola is enraged… in a supposedly comical way. Instead of another breakdown to keep her world in her control, Viola goes on the offensive and moves in with the young couple.


Monster-in-Law marks Jane Fonda’s first film since 1990 when she did a fine job as a single working mother who helped an illiterate man (Robert De Niro) learn how to read in Stanley & Iris. Then of course, there was On Golden Pond. Here, I think the filmmaker seems to want to just showcase how great the actress looks at 67 years of age. And she does look great. Whoopee doo.


One of the major problems with Monster-in-Law is that the previews promised so much more than the film actually delivered. The trailer raised my expectations (and those of my sister) andthe film itself was so much of a disappointment because it didn’t deliver on its promises. The film is more like a vaudeville skit than an entertaining comedy. Without any character development, or anything to make me care, I thought Monster-in-Law a waste of time – with a few laughs. (On the other hand, my 25 year old nephew who watched the film with us, enjoyed the movie. Not everyone sees the same thing the same way….)


All four of the major actors (including Wanda Sykes as Ruby, Viola’s assistant) could have chosen a better project, more suited to their talent.


How many wedding movies does Jennifer Lopez have to make anyway? And I like her as an actress – she was excellent, attractive, and intelligent in Selena and Out of Sight; these films showcased her versatile talent so well.


Finally, I think mothers-in-law should unite to refute the negative stereotype that is supposed to fuel this film. Monster? There is a tiny moral at the end of the film when Charlie confronts Viola but it does little to off-set an empty air bag of a movie. Monster-in-Law doesn’t even rate to be called the derogatory “chick flick.”


The “peach” color of this type goes along with the movie.

Kicking and Screaming

Phil Weston (Will Ferrell) is very disappointed and then outraged to find out that his son Sam (Dillon McLaughlin) is warming the bench at the soccer game – and then is traded to another team by the coach, Sam’s grandfather and Phil’s dad, Buck (Robert Duvall). When the coach of Sam’s new team fails to show, Phil volunteers.

Phil could never live up to his father’s expectations when it came to sports and they get into an argument at Buck’s house. Just then a neighbor starts blowing leaves into Buck’s backyard. It is Mike Ditka (as himself), former coach of the Chicago Bears. Buck and Ditka do not get along and Phil soon convinces Ditka to help him coach Sam’s team, aiming at the championship. To complicate things, Buck had remarried after his divorce and now has a son the same age as Sam so the competition stakes are raised even higher.

I have not been a Will Ferrell fan since he left his political career at Saturday Night Live. He just seems to take sophomoric roles. In many ways, he is a silly coach here, making fun of the behavior of sports parents out there, showing how silly they are to project their own failures, expectations and ambitions on their kids when the kids are just supposed to be “having fun”, (that is, when those parents are not being violent.) However, there are some very funny parts in this film so heavily laden with the “moral of the story.” The usual body-part humor is there (remember? It’s a comedy about adolescent boys between the ages of 10 and 75), but then Ditka gets Phil hooked on caffeine and that did make me laugh.

Sports moms and dads, please pay attention to this film. It’s more for you than the kids, well, the boys. I can see how humor can be a good medium to address what is a serious problem: over zealous sports parents. To see the Davids play against the Goliaths of this soccer league is fun, especially when Phil  brings in the “pros” who are new to the neighborhood. Kicking and Screaming just might give kid-viewers hope if they have a sports-dad-from-hell, the kind that Phil turns into. This film is going to make a lot of money.

Robert Duvall and Mike Ditka are the real stars of Kicking and Screaming. Someone ought to pair them up again.


In Los Angeles, a detective Graham, (Don Cheadle) investigates the site where the body of a young man was found. He recognizes the young man and his mind flashes back to yesterday.

Two young black men (Ludacris and Larenz Tate) cruise a mall in the very white San Fernando Valley. They discuss racism and cross the path of Rick (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Jean (Sandra Bullock.) When Jean sees the young men, she is afraid and instinctively draws closer to her husband. The two young black men comment on it and then car jack their SUV. Jean is terrified at home, and criticizes her husband for letting a Hispanic man change the locks. On their way to a chop shop, the two black men hit an Asian man unintentionally. They argue about saving him or running him over.  In another part of town, an Iranian shop owner and his daughter buy a gun to protect themselves. The store’s proprietor  (Jack McGee) is intolerant of the man’s poor English; they get into an argument. The daughter ends up buying the gun. Back in the valley, two cops Ryan (Matt Dillon) and Hanson (Ryan Phillippe) are watching for Rick’s stolen SUV, and see another SUV and some possible activity going on inside. They stop the car with Cameron (Terrence Dashon Howard) and Christine (Thandie Newton), and they get into an argument. Ryan molests Christine as he frisks her while Cameron stays silent. Hanson is shocked and at the end of his shift asks for a transfer. Meanwhile, Ryan tries to deal with the health insurance supervisor for his dad’s HMO. When he learns her name is Shaniqua (Loretta Divine) he makes racial comments.

And around and around on a human journey we go. 

If you saw the trailer/preview for Crash, masterfully co-written (with Robert Moresco) and directed by Paul Haggis (E-Z Streets, Million Dollar Baby) you may have, like me, thought it deserved an award all by itself. 

Crash is an LA film noir tale of about 24 hours in the lives of a racially and culturally diverse group of people whose lives, decisions and choices intersect and impact strangers in ways only a film can devise.

This is no ordinary film; it is unconventionally written in a circle rather than in the usual linear style. It is the Butterfly Effect “or more technically the ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’, the essence of chaos” as described by Lorenz in 1963 and 1972. The chaos is Los Angeles, the metaphor for human interaction.

At first the film may seem to be about racism or crime or fear in a city that breeds all of these, but keeps going, day after day. And it is about those things. But at its heart, it is about the choices we make and their consequences; it is about conscience and morality, the good choices and the bad ones and their effect on complete strangers as well as the characters themselves. 

I think the film is also doing theology, it is faith seeking understanding. It takes place at Christmas time and Nativity scenes form the backdrop for the incidents. One of the young black men has a St. Christopher statue that he places on the dashboard of every car he steals; another character has the same statue. What the St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, as well as Christ’s birth, mean and the subtle connection of the story to Divine Providence, is not lost on the audience. Finally, the film is about sin and redemption; life, the journey.

Crash seems to have a cast of thousands (I could not recall all the names), yet it works. We are here on this earth together and human beings are capable to great good and great evil, and sometimes both. Crash is difficult to watch because of the moral chaos it portrays, but it is best film I have seen in a long time.

One time as I was leaving a theater in Culver City I asked a young woman what she thought of the film we had just seen. She told me and then she said, “I have lived in LA for two years and you are the first perfect stranger to even acknowledge my presence here, or speak to me.” This is the kind of experience Haggis taps into.

The acting is excellent and the audience can empathize with some of the characters and recognize all of them. Sandra Bullock plays against type and shows she is a mature actress. All the actors are exceptional.

When Paul Haggis’ short-lived TV series EZ Streets was running in 1996, I knew I was looking at some of the best television I had ever seen. Dark, yes, but truthful and human. Haggis understands the darkness; he knows truth and this backlights goodness and somewhere we know, there is beauty.

This film has to be an awards contender. Perfect chiaroscuro.

Fever Pitch

Ben (Jimmy Fallon) has grown up “to be one of the most pathetic of creatures: a Boston Red Sox fan.” When his father died and his mom moved him to Boston, his Uncle Carl started taking him to Fenway Park. There Ben learned about the Big Green Monster and all the lore about the Sox, especially, the curse of the Bambino. His best friends were the other fans who held the same season tickets, year after year.


About a year before the Sox won the Series (2004), Ben, a teacher, meets Lindsey (Drew Barrymore) a financial analyst, when he takes a group of students to visit her company for a career day. They are attracted to one another and soon Ben invites her to a game. His uncle left him his two seats when he died, and Ben lets Lindsey know what a privilege it is for him to invite her.


Ben’s apartment looks like a Red Sox museum, his social life is dictated by the Red Sox home game schedule, and his friends are all fans, too. When it’s baseball season, Ben cannot think of anything else. He tells Lindsey, as they grow closer, that he is afraid he will lose her, like he loses all the girls, because of his Red Sox fanaticism. Lindsey is a workaholic, so she says they are well-matched. And they are, until things get complicated in the usual way of contemporary romantic comedies (an object lesson here on relationships and the benefit of chastity before marriage…)


Jimmy Fallon is very sweet in his role as Ben, and Drew Barrymore is, too, as the career girl. Fever Pitch is based on a novel byNick Hornby (About a Boy – one of my favorite movies) and though directed by the oft times scuzzy Farrelley Brothers, Fever Pitch only gets puerile a few times. It’s so right on about Red Sox fans and it made me laugh.


Our main convent for the Daughters of St. Paul in the US and Toronto is in Boston. Last fall, during the playoffs between the Red Sox and the Yankees, the Sisters put a prayer kneeler for the convent Yankee fans at the back of the large conference hall where they gathered to watch the game – and beside the kneeler, two large candles. Four of the Sisters were from New York City, and the rest of the community wanted them to know that the Yankees didn’t have a prayer – but they could try if they wanted.


Sister Mary Paula Kolar is our resident Red Sox fan; knowing her gave all the more meaning to Fever Pitch.  She is also our resident poet laureate and so she just had to write a poem about the Red Sox winning the World Series – finally!




by Sister Mary Paula Kolar, fsp. 10/28/04

Happiness is everywhere,
felt and voiced, it fills the air.
All around and all about,
hearts rejoice, give thanks and shout.

No more will dreams illusive be,
We live the prized reality,
the wondrous truth of TROPHY won,
By loved RED SOX for what they’ve done!

Curse (?!), doubts, predictions, odds, defied,
what SOX achieved can’t be denied!
The faith they kept, always believed.

Immortalized, this FEAT will gleam
as truth ecstatic, cherished dream!
This team, the whole world does acclaim.
They earned, deserve, their hard-won fame.

Backed by believers, far and wide,
elated hearts, their joy can’t hide.
History’s been made, and time will tell
how this great TEAM came to excel.

With winsome spirit, jovial ways;
they cheered all hearts for many days.
Through dark days did at time appear,
some weary hearts did then know fear.

Brighter days once more did shine.
All knew again, they would do fine;
Hopes renewed, brought better ways,
all doubts dispersed, like misty rays.

In countless lives that hold you dear,
what you’ve achieved will e’er remain,
in hearts enshrined with your great name.


Sister Mary Paula Kolar, the Poet Laureate of the Daughters of St. Paul!

House of D

Tom Warshaw (David Duchovny) is an American artist living in Paris. He is married to a French woman (Magalie Amadei) and they have a son, Odell (Harold Cartier). But not all is well with Tom; he is unsettled and spends an entire night with his wife, sitting at a table in the garden of the apartment house (with all the neighbors listening in), telling her the story of his life. She tells him that he must go back to New York and find himself before he can be happy.


Flash back to 1977 when Tom is 13 years old. His father has died and he lives with his nurse mother, Katherine (Tea Leoni). She is depressed and takes pills, but tries to care for Tom in the best way she can. Tom has a “retarded” friend, Pappass. They deliver meat together and bury their meager savings in a hole along the side of the Woman’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village. An inmate, Lady Bernadette (aka Odelia played by Erykah Badu) watches him bury the money through a fractured piece of mirror from her cell on an upper floor. They become friends; she becomes his advisor. Then a series of serious things happen and Tom’s world changes.


This is an uneven film, written and directed by Duchovny. As I was leaving the theater, two men asked me what film I had seen and did I like it. I thought a moment and replied, “I think this is a story I would have preferred to read.”


Yet, I think the film is a sincere attempt to work through unresolved adolescent issues that plague us all at one time or another. I just did not find it all that credible. I though Robin Williams was miscast. He’s too big a name and he distracted me because I kept thinking he was going to do something else. To be fair, I think he tried hard to play retarded, or mentally handicapped (as the years change so does his diagnosis!), but they should have cast an unknown in the role.


There was also so much penile puerile stuff in it. If this were a film aimed at a 13-year old audience, maybe I could see it. But it is a film about an adult’s journey. I think kids would snicker and miss the intended story; it bored me because there was so much of it.


Wait for the DVD on this one.



So, here we go with another euthanasia themed story. As media educators know, the media normalize behavior and when a behavior is re-enacted over and over, we tend to stop questioning it. Additionally, because this is about a 13 year old who unplugs his mom from a respirator, I find this moment in the film (euthanasia) highly improbable to the story as well as sorry it was even written in.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

This very funny film is based on a series of very popular science fiction radio shows and books by the late Douglas Adams (1952-2001).


Just the other day, in rural England, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) wakes up to find that the highway commission is going to demolish his house so they can build a motorway (highway). They had posted their intent, but Arthur ignored it. Arthur is greatly upset and lies down in front of the bulldozer to stop them. Just then his friend, Ford Perfect (Mos Def) arrives to tell him and folks at the local pub, that the end of earth is coming because the Vogons (I think that’s who they were) are coming to demolish it to make an inter-galaxy highway. Ford and Arthur hitch a ride on a spaceship filled with Vogons and their inter-galactic adventures begin. They become part of a search for the meaning of life.


This film is so absurd that in the end I think its premise it one of happy nihilism: there is no meaning to life, but you might as well be happy and make the best of it. I do not say this in a disparaging way. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is a brilliant concept, and if you ever find out why towels are so important to the journey, please let me know.


If you like philosophy and don’t take yourself too seriously, I think the film could offer much to talk about. And be kind to mice; you just never know.

Kingdom of Heaven

Kingdom of Heaven: Reality or Symbol


(This is an essay I wrote for The Tidings; for a sidebar on the Crusades go to the complete essay at


Ridley Scott’s latest film, Kingdom of Heaven, is about one of the most obscure and complex periods of world history: the Crusades (1096 – c.1300; see end of this article for information about the Crusades). Orlando Bloom is in his first lead role here, though not his first epic, (Lord of the Rings trilogy; Troy). It is familiar territory for Sir Ridley who has a reputation for telling stories through battlefield spectacle (Hannibal, Black Hawk Down; Gladiator). The Kingdom of Heaven is an ambitious portrayal of Europe’s emergence from the Dark Ages that established conflict as the way the three monotheistic world religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would relate to one another from then until now. To understand this fact is perhaps the strongest reason to see this movie.


The Crusades through Balian’s Eyes


The story begins in 1184 with the burial of a lovely young woman (Nathalie Cox) who has committed suicide because her child died during birth. As was the practice of those times, people who committed suicide were not given a Christian burial. The priest (Michael Sheen) who buries the woman steals the crucifix from her neck.


Balian is the village blacksmith. As he works off his despair forging iron at the fire, a strange knight appears at the door. He is Godfrey (Liam Neeson) and he tells Balian that he is his true father. Godfrey invites Balian to come to the Holy Land with him to help King Baldwin of Jerusalem preserve the kingdom. Balian declines. His next visitor is the priest who buried his wife. The priest taunts Balian about his wife’s suicide. When Balian sees that the priest is wearing his wife’s crucifix, Balian kills him. He decides to flee immediately and joins Godfrey, hoping he will find forgiveness for his sin in Jerusalem.


Godfrey is killed on the journey but Balian reaches Jerusalem. He seeks peace there, but is not able to find it. He lives on his father’s land and notices how Moslems and Christians live well together. Balian meets Sybilla (Eva Green), the king’s sister and wife of Guy de Lusigan, an ambitious and stupid knight. Balian and Sybilla are attracted to one another. King Baldwin the Leper (Edward Norton) wants Jerusalem to be the peaceful kingdom of God promised in the Gospels, but some of the knights, both secular and Templar, headed by Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), conspire against the king to provoke a war with the Muslims. 


          The Muslim army is headed by Saladin(Ghassan Massoud), who marches from Damascus to attack Jerusalem. Saladin is an intelligent, just man who lives by the Koran. How he and the reluctant Balian, the heroes of this based-on-fact film, together resolve the terrible conflagration that ensues, is at the heart of the Kingdom of Heaven.


The question of the meaning of Jerusalem in history, as a holy place and as a symbol, is the climax of the film. At the end, as these two men of conscience gaze up at Jerusalem, Balian asks Saladin, “What does it mean to you?” Saladin starts to walk away and replies, “Nothing”. Then he turns back and says, “Everything.”


The Kingdom of Heaven


Recent epics such as Troy, The Last Samurai, The Alamo, and King Arthur have all been box office disappointments. Like some of these, the Kingdom of Heaven is based on historical facts although the source for Balian’s early story seems that of Conrad of Monferrat who fled to Palestine after murdering someone and his relationship with Sibylla almost certainly did not occur. These are incidental to the overall facts of the film which do respect history.


Ridley Scott’s epic Kingdom of Heaven may be more successful that these epics because it will attract thoughtful movie-goerswho prefer the dramatic experience to interest them on many levels. These include the artistic production quality as well as historical accuracy, religious aspects, the faith dimension, and current events. It is impossible not to make this last connection, and frankly, director Ridley Scott wants us to. He told journalists on April 7, 2005 that “one of the lessons of the film for today is that we don’t learn anything from history; we just keep doing the same things over and over.


        Orlando Bloom acquits himself very well. As he said in a recent interview, he is 28 years old now, and this film was his opportunity to take responsibility for his life and work. Bloom told journalists, “Ultimately what screams across the movie is what makes for right action; what you do to your fellow man – this is what matters. This is godliness.” Jeremy Irons is Tiberias, a conflicted knight who has sworn to obey the king no matter who he is. We only see Edward Norton’s eyes since he must wear a mask to cover the ravages of leprosy on his face. Yet he manages to engage the audience on an emotional level that the rest of the film never quite reaches.


Writer William Monahan has filled the Kingdom of Heaven with messages for the audience; much of Balian’s dialogue is teaching us about a man’s character, true chivalry, honor, peace, and the absurdity of war.  Ultimately Ridley Scott thinks that the meaning of the film is: “if Jerusalem is God’s kingdom then let him have it. If this film isn’t about humanity what is it about? It must be about life andthe preservation of life.”


Pope John Paul II offered what could be a commentary on a film like Kingdom of Heaven when he spoke in Syria in May, 2001, “Today, in a world that is increasingly complex and interdependent, there is a need for a new spirit of dialogue and cooperation between Muslims and Christians. Together we acknowledge the one indivisible God, the Creator of all that exists. Together we must proclaim to the world that the name of the one God is a name of peace and a summons to peace.”


In Damascus, on May 6, 2001, John Paul II made the first papal visit to a mosque in the history of the world.