Orphanage, El Orfanato

Why do characters in movies insist on prowling around in the dark when they hear a noise even though they have a husband or wife or someone who could prowl with them? Maybe because fear is a solitary thing, and maybe because the prowling goes into “parallel perceptions”, as The Orphange does, and ultimately one must go it alone.

Produced by Guillermo del Toro (2006’s brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth), The Orphanage is a film lover’s movie because you have to be willing to stay with it and wait, letting the dread and anticipation build.

A 37- year old woman, Laura, and her husband, Carlos, move with their adopted son, Simon, into an old Victorian-style orphanage on the Spanish coast. Simon, at 7, does not know he is adopted or that he is HIV positive. Laura is herself an orphan; she and Carlos, a doctor, have bought Good Shepherd Orphanage, to make a home for themselves and five or six sick children.

But this is indeed a house of spirits; when an elderly and creepy social worker appears with Simon’s files, Simon begins friendships with make-believe friends and then goes missing in the noisy, mysterious house, and remains of children are found, unanswered questions ratchet up the audience’s tension and anxiety.

This is a supernatural/psychological and I think a religious thriller straight out of Hitchcock rather than the latest bloody horror flick. It uses James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as a kind of framework, about a boy (and other children who don’t want to grow up, or whose opportunity to grow up is taken away.) It is smart and expertly filmed. It does take its time, though. I think it’s worth it if this is your genre. Very art house. Geraldine Chaplin plays a psychic who tries to discover what is going on in the house as the search for Simon continues. There’s an interesting dynamic between faith and superstition as well: seeing is not believing – believing is seeing. There’s a medium and a psychic on one side, and a chapel in the old orphanage of The Good Shepherd, flashbacks to prayer, and Carlos’ St. Anthony medal. He wears it because Laura believes. I am still trying to figure out what the film might have been trying to say about faith and the afterlife. A very good watch.

For actors and other details, see www.imdb.com

Great Debaters the Movie

In the mid 1930’s Wiley College, a tiny Methodist school in east Texas, had a winning debate team. This film, starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington (he also directed) and Forest Whitaker is a proficient histoical drama about the team and the times with flashes of brilliance.

In this scene for example. Dr. James Farmer, the president of the college and a minister, calls Denzel, as Professor Melvin B. Tolson, coach of the debate team, on his extra-curricular activities: organizing share-cropers into a kind of union. They go at each other with intelligence in friendship and respect.

It is a believable sequence that pulls you into the characters. I think adding in the union activities as a theme made the film a little too busy but was needed to move the action along.

The film has the flavor of the sports formula film about it, David and Goliath and so forth. This is, after all, one of the most winning of formulas there are.

There is a flavor of the 1987 film “Cry Freedom” about it, too. It could be because Denzel played in it (as Steve Biko, the martyr of aparheid) and a few of the scenes took place in “shabeens”, the pubs of South African townships. These have been recreated for this film only in a U.S. south, that is, Texas, setting.  It is remarkable to think, however, that in 1935 the U.S.  south under Jim Crow, was South Africa under apartheid.

What I liked about the film, in addition to Whitaker’s performance (and Denzel Whitaker’s – no relation to Forest it seems), is that it has a feel of authenticity about it. Some of the characters portrayed went on to play roles in the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60’s and the film shows where they came from, where they got their ideas and the impetus to do something to make a difference. The role of the churches cannot be underestimated in the Civil Rights Movement and I think The Great Debaters portrays this very well.

The Great Debaters is about education, civil rights issues, and racism; it is teaching and informing us, and I enjoyed it even though I knew how it would end from the opening scene.  

I think Forest Whitaker is very good in this film.

Golden Compass Controversy: Shedding Light

Here is an article from The Fairfield County Catholic (Diocese of Bridgeport, CT) that I think will shed some light of understanding and calm on the recent controversy surrounding reviews about The Golden Compass. This interview/article says to me that it is good to read carefully, think, and ask questions in the interest of authentic dialogue about the products of popular culture. I think the paper has chosen the better part: to respond rather than react.




The December 14, 2007 The Tidings, the newspaper of the Archdicoese of Los Angeles (www.the-tidings.com) ran two letters to the editor about an article and my review of “The Golden Compass”. Although the film is on its way out of theaters, it will come out soon on DVD and will have a long shelf life, as the books already have. Therefore, I think it is deeply interesting and meaningful to compare and contrast the two perspectives as we consider the lingering presence of this title and any other controversial films/books that may come out in the future.

‘The Golden Compass’: Just say no? Or shall we talk?


‘Compass’: Challenging believers to articulate faith, values


Bravo to Sister Rose Pacatte’s Nov. 30th article, “’The Golden Compass’: Just say no? Or shall we talk?”


            What a well-written article! This topic has inspired me to pursue certain avenues that have fallen by the wayside. I believe your call to action on letting children think for themselves is the most valuable virtue we can give a budding Catholic. Our example is the best teaching method we have.


When others try to attack our hard work, we need to prepare our children for that. My motto is “There should be no shortage of wonderful stories for children to read.” Obviously we need to share in useful discussions about thegood and the bad.


Anna Martinez

Los Angeles

I was troubled by Sister Rose Pacatte’s conclusion after reviewing “The Golden Compass” and related controversy (Dec. 7). She stated, “To just say no is not a valid option in today’s media world.”


The church encourages the discriminating use of the media. If I want to protest the supposedly benign atheist agenda of Phillip Pullman, coming as it does in the context of an increasingly aggressive atheistic movement (e.g. Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.), a perfectly ‘valid option” is to “just say no” to the movie version of his  book.


For the same reason I have ensured that Pullman’s books are not on the shelves of our school library. It’s like boycotting Chinese goods to protest the oppression of Tibet. This is non-violent resistance entirely in line with the social teaching of the Church. A sad day has dawned if we have ‘empowered” the media to such an extent that every Hollywood production is a must-see.


Rev. Norbert J. Wood, O.Praem.

Rector, St. John the Baptist School

Costa Mesa



Diving Bell and the Butterfly the Movie

Le Scaphandre et le papillon or, in English, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, has also just made my top ten list for 2007.

Directed by a biopic master (and artist) Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) this current film is all about Schnabel’s ability to create perspective and communicate texture of life. It is sacramental in this way because it is an external manifestation of an inner reality comprised of a man’s memory and imagination.

Jean-Dominique Bauby (here played by Mathieu Amalric; Munich) was an editor/journilist for Elle magazine when in 1995 at the age of 43, he had a massive stroke that completely impaired his brain stem leaving him with “locked in syndrome”.

Schnabel has interpreted Bauby’s memoirs (dictated by blinking his left eye when the person taking the dictation would say the correct letter) in a way that makes the audience feel Bauby drowning in a sea of unknowing, navigating a life trapped within, and soar with him as his imagination breaks free.

Bauby died about ten days after his memoir was published in 1997.

Bauby was no saint before his stroke. Was he after? It will depend on your definition of holiness. There are many aspects of this film that I love, but the moment Bauby chooses to live, even locked in as he was, touched me profoundly. Isn’t it one of life’s lessons: to change the things you can (and he did), to accept the things you cannot (and he did) and to have the wisdom to know the difference – and this he certainly learned.

Would that we all reach Bauby’s serenity the way Julian Schnabel presents it through the film. Awesome.

Another top ten film for 2007.

Juno the Movie

The writer and director of last year’s off-beat comedy Thank You for Smoking, Jason Reitman has given me one of my top-ten films of 2007: Juno. It is funny, life-affirming, quirky and charming in an edgy, loving kind of way. Writer Diablo Cody (a woman) is right up there with Aaron Sorkin and David Kelly in terms of sharp, rapid-fire dialogue, imbued with humor and deeply-felt life.


Juno (played by Ellen Page; X-Men: the Last Stand) has blurry intercourse with her boyfriend (played by Michael Cera) because she is bored (we find out later; her step-mother, played by Allison Janney, provides this rationale) and, at 16, becomes pregnant. She considers an abortion but as she enters a clinic, a friend who is picketing yells after her: “Your baby has fingernails!” This idea ultimately convinces Juno to have the baby and give him or her up for adoption.

She finds a couple who have advertised in the  local Penny Saver. She and her dad go to visit and the adoption process is underway. Complications ensue amidst some underplayed hilarity and commentary by the precocious Juno and her clueless, but generous and good-hearted parents. Juno is is so much smarter than they are, and she knows it, yet their relationship is so beautifully portrayed, as parents and child, that this remains one of the strongest – and most touching – aspects of the film.

Juno is playing in art house theaters here in LA but it deserves a general theatrical release; maybe the Golden Globe nomination will give this life-affirming film the attention it deserves.

At first I wondered what on earth people were going on about regarding the film (because of the opening sequence), but after five or ten minutes I was hooked.

If you love movies, you won’t want to miss this one.

If you are tentative about movies, try this one and be surprised. Talk about heart.

Others have probably said this but Juno feels like a girl’s version of Napoleon Dynamite. Both Juno and the father of her baby dwell in high school borderlands; neither one really fits in. Juno has a girl as its hero, the main character, and it is very life-affirming, as is the film Waitress.

This film deserves a study guide; another film that could launch a thousand conversations – good conversations about things that matter.

This isn’t a romance; it is a coming of age film about all kinds of love and understanding what authentic love is.


Alvin and the Chipmunks Movie

Alvin and the Chipmunks has its moments as an animation/live action combo because it targets our cuteness meter. Trying to tell the story of the famous song group (to those of us growing up 50 years ago) founded by Ross Bagdasarian in 1958, kidvid director Tim Hill does his best with a story that suffers from too many writers (three) who don’t know what they want to say – at least it seems that way.


The film also depends on blatant and un-funny product placement and predictable gags and trying to force a family friendly message out of good animation. I felt like the filmmakers were ticking off a list of all the usual elements without really letting their creativity do something exceptional.

The total lack of a learning curve for the chipmunks as they transisted from the forest to the city and making the little guys seem like they had at least made it through th 8th grade of pop culture junior high in terms of lingo, demonstrated that the filmmakers wanted to reach a broad audience age-range, but it was only so-so for me.

Having said this, the film does show the down-side of the recording industry for young artists – but it doesn’t mean it will keep studios from trying to discover and create the latest hit wonder.

Although this review may sound a tad unpositive, the only objectionable things are noted here. I saw it with my two nephews ages 6 & 9 and it was the second time for them. The younger one did say after about a half hour that it was funnier the first time through….

And if you stay for the credits you’ll here Alvin and the Chipmunks sing a Christmas carol and get a little history about their albums. My nephews made me wait so I could see the one that they have (on CD).


August Rush the Movie

If you like sweet films where you have to suspend your disbelief (as my sister Libby says) when the film seems more like a choppy fable than reality, you’ll enjoy August Rush

Keri Russell plays Lyla, a classical musician trying to escape her father’s control, who meets up with Louis, a rock singer played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. They spend a night together on a roof top bench in New York. Her father refuses to let her meet the young man the next day. Alas, she falls pregnant. She insists on having the baby although her father disapproves. When she has the baby her father lets her understand that the baby dies, and she believes him. Evan grows up in a Long Island orphanage/boys home and doesn’t want to be adopted. He believes he can find his parents and runs away to New york to begin the journey.

You have to know how this is going to end…

Directed by Kirsten Sheridan, daughter of director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot; In America), the film struggles with the storyline and quality of writing. It also suffers from Robin Williams as the Fagin character to orphan Freddie Highmore’s Evan aka August Rush in an Oliver Twist scenario. Mixing the Harlem church with the preacher and his daughter is a nice touch but the minister is kind of left at the end like a dangling modifer.

I think Terrence Howard is terrific in any role and he plays his social worker character well here – but his is another role that the film fails to carry through.

Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are fine, but they deserved more screen time. The writers needed to find a way to take care of Evan while he was in the city but mixing in Dickens created the film’s fatal flaw.

While the film won’t make my top ten list for 2007, I liked it well enough.

What does work is Highmore’s music and the enthusiasm with which he embraces it. The film may draw a tear or two at the end (it did for me…) when everyone is reunited at a concert – even though it is hyper-predictable. The film has heart.

Smile. This is a life-affirming film.


Kite Runner the Movie

Director Marc Forster’s (Finding Neverland) interpretation of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel is warm and faithful, the LA Times and NY Times notwithstanding.

The child actors (relocated for their own safely because of the implicit male rape scene and later, child abuse which does not reflect well on Islamic cultures) are fresh and authentic. Any awards, however, should go to Homayoun Ershadi who plays Baba, the father of Amir. He centers the film and carries it because his action, after all, was the catalyst of everything that followed.

The plot of the story can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kite_Runner and my longer review for St. Anthony Messenger here:


For me, the words, “There is a chance to do good again” drive the entire picture. I loved the way the grown Amir not only reconciles with the wrong he did as a child to his friend (not unlike Briony in Atonement) by risking his own life, but how he reconciles with God as well. This gives the story/movie a dimension that people of all faiths can appreciate.

Kite running is a favorite “sport” among Afghanistan boys; it’s a kite war really, and it is around what should have been carefree recreation, that the drama, tragedy, and atonement unfold.

Friendship, regret, goodness, atonement, forgiveness, are just some of the themes of a sensitive, powerful, and inspiring story made into a film. There is a way to do good again, and to finally be free. Every social ill of the world can be talked about in terms of this film, from the mistreatment of women and children, to war, greed, the abuse of power, etc. At it’s heart it is a universal tale.

Cinematography is gorgeous, though stark.


Atonement the Movie

This  period drama, based on the book by Ian McEwan, is as tragic as it is beautiful. I haven’t read the book so I cannot compare them, but if you have ever done something that hurt a loved one or a friend and came to regret, this may be an opportunity for you to do penance, assuage the guilt, and find a way to make restitution.

The basic story is that a very precocious and rigid young English girl, who thinks she knows more than she does, puts her nose where she shouldn’t, misinterprets what she sees and then lies. Her lies send an innocent young man to jail and ruins his romance with her older sister. He finally gets out of jail be agreeing to go to war (WWII)….

The film takes its time getting to London where the young soldier (James McAvoy) and his inamorata (Kiera Knightley) meet up for a short time – or do they?

The acting is superb by all, especially by Saoirse Ronan who plays the young Briony at age 13 (and who will be in the upcoming The Lovely Bones).

What is so interesting to me is the form Briony’s atonement took and who it mattered to; this film could launch a thousand conversations.

The cinematography and direction are flawless.


Online Course Church and Communuication

One of the best kept secret treasures of the Catholic Church is its body of teaching on communication and media.

For those of you who want to know more about the Church’s teaching, theology, and spirituality of communications and media, may I invite you to consider this online course from the University of Dayton’s Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation.

The website is: http://vlc.udayton.edu

The Church and Communciation course is described by clicking on this link:


If your diocese is a partner member, your fee is $40.00; if not, the fee is $80.00.

The course begins on January 6, 2008 and runs for five weeks.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will be facilitating this course and I welcome you to join us.

People of all faith communities are welcome.