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Saturday, November 29, 2003
SOFT PORN, ACTUALLY

The new flick from the guy who wrote Notting Hill and Four Weddings is a textbook example of a film that uses human nudity to violate and degrade both the actors and the viewers. Too bad several of the vignettes are clever and enjoyable. The scenes with the sex-industry people are quite altogether putrid. The language would also have to ascend six floors to reach the gutter.

PASS, old boy. PASS, PASS, PASS.
Friday, November 28, 2003
"Just get up off the ground, that's
all I ask. Get up there with that
lady that is up on top of this Capitol
dome--that lady that stands for
liberty, take a look at this country
through her eyes if you really want
to see something and you won't just
see scenery--you'll see the whole
parade of what man's carved out for
himself after centuries of fighting
and fighting for something better
than just jungle law; fighting so's
he can stand on his own two feet--
free and decent, like he was created--
no matter what his race, color or
creed. That's what you'll see. There's
no place out there for graft or greed
or lies or compromise with human
liberties. "
(from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
CHEAPER IS STILL TOO MUCH

I was really rather excited to see the new Cheaper By the Dozen. Starring two of Hollywood's smart actors, who happen to also be good writers, Bonnie Hunt and Steve Martin, I figured this remake would be a heart-warming and funny family film for the holiday season.

Sadly, there are much less than a dozen laughs here, and probably several dozen awkward group hugs between actors whom we never believe have any real bond. Poor Bonnie and Steve seem pretty embarrassed all throughout.

The problems with Cheaper all flow from a bad script - basically too many actors, but not enough good characters to go around. (This isn't surprising as there were too many writers to go around on this project. I counted seven, with the principal writer being Craig Titley whose previous credit was the provocative and compelling Scooby-Doo. ) All of the kids are given cursory storylines that can be summed up as : evil kid; vain kid; sullen teenager kid; slutty oldest female kid; fat kid; shy kid with frog; cute twin kids; etc.

The writer makes the HUGE mistake of sending Bonnie off to New York and out of the movie for most of the second act. Bad idea. Real bad. Bonnie is half of the best part of this project. The other huge script mistake is that the movie's stakes are just not high enough. Getting and holding a job as a college football coach just ain't that universal and compelling a theme to engage the sympathies of the global audience.

There was lots of potential here to make a positive statement about family life and the gift that large families and many children can be. Certainly, this is why Bonnie Hunt was attracted by the project. She keeps making projects that have this kind of tone. Unfortunately, the principal writer doesn't really get why people would ever want to have a big family, so, he has to explain it away as the result of a series of "accidents." There is another completely unnecessary plotline about the oldest daughter living with her idiot boyfriend - played oh, so convincingly by Ashton Kutcher.

There are food fights here, but nothing really nourishing. There is cuteness, but no real charm. There are loads of good intentions here, but too little of anything else to justify recommending this film. But do rent the 1950 original. It's much better.
Thursday, November 27, 2003
"You know, in a way, I envy you Charlie. Your
daily routine - you know what's expected.
You know the drill. My job is to plumb the
depths, so to speak, dredge something up from
inside, something honest. There's no road map
for that territory .. . . and exploring it can be painful.
The kind of pain most people don't know anything
about. "
(from Barton Fink)
Wednesday, November 26, 2003
DROWNING IN GOOD MOVIES?

So, any list of the best movies of the year will include Finding Nemo, Whale Rider, Big Fish, Master and Commander, Pirates of the Carribbean.

Anybody else ["SPLASH!"] sensing a ["GLUG!GLUG!"] pattern here? ["WAVE NOISE!"]

It's WATER, stupid. The common theme of the screens best offerings, breaking over us all year is being wet. Some kind of cinematic baptism going on here? Something primal, maybe, about needing to get clean? Needing to be baptized? Theologians of the culture, into the undertow with you! Reduce and analyze!
BIG FISH: SOUL (SEA)FOOD

I really liked this new film coming from Sony/Columbia Pictures. Based on the book by Daniel Wallace, the adaptation was helmed by Tim Burton and features a daunting school of actors including Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Billy Crudup, Danny DeVito, Helena Bonham Carter and Steve Buscemi -- and what's the name of that French actress who steals every scene she is in?...oh yeah, Marion Cotillard.

This film is unlike anything else you have seen lately. It is a drama with strong fantasy and comedic elements - hearkening back to Forest Gump in tone and style. Screenwriter John August serves up a brilliantly crafted tale here that utilizes every fish in the cinematic sea to deliver a good story and some profound themes. Big Fish combines real poetic imagery, composition, the juxtaposition of images(editing, for short) where most movies barely even nod at these potentials. Burton does a great job reeling in humane and "better than real" performances from his talented ensemble.

The structure of the film made me laugh - it whizzes through time and space back and forth, matching up characters from their youth to their dotage - and never leaving the audience in the story's wake.

The film has several worthy themes - in the way that "great art is about everything." Primarily, for the filmmakers, Big Fish is about the essential journey toward acceptance and reconciliation between fathers and sons. There is also a strong underlying premise about the role of stories in human life - why we love them, and why we need them - that I found lovely. Thirdly, the film offers a whimsical vision of what I can only call HOLY matrimony - which twenty-something, hip and stunning, actress Alison Lohman referred to as, "Well, it's what we all really want, isn't it?"

Big Fish is entertaining, delightful, sad, provocative, fresh and well-crafted. After the screening, a group of us writer types sat in the car happily unraveling the metaphors and revisiting some of the films quirky and cool moments. Big Fish is the kind of film you bring your thoughtful friends too, so you can grow together through it and after it.

However, I am also aware that the people who should love it most -- you faith-n-family oriented types - will probably attack the film for two moments of fleeting nudity, and a couple other short flashes of humanity being crassly human. It will be very sad if you miss all that this film offers because of these things. I will now attempt to dissuade some of you from staying away, attacking and vilifying this work of art because of these two things.

The nudity... The central images in the film are "fishness" and "water." The screenwriter assured us at the press junket that the film's hero, "is, after all, a fish." I don't quite understand the metaphor, but I do have a sense that it is a rich image just waiting for me to apply my brain to unravel. So, there is a scene in which the mythical giant fish who lives in the river, manifests itself to the hero as a beautiful woman. As an incarnation of an aquatic lifeform, she appears unclothed, because, you know, fish don't wear clothes...becuase, well, they aren't aware of immodesty...because they are, well, part of the natural world and in some sense innocent....So, the fish-woman is revealed from the back, so we see nothing but a bare bottom, but she is unclothed.

The sequences are fleeting, haunting (Act Oners alert!) and lovely, and reminded me of Disney's Fantasia fairies, who were similarly naked, but not at all erotic. Not all nudity is objectification. Ref. Michaelangelo's David. Ref. the Sistine Chapel. Ref. Wit. Ref. ...OH FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE! Do we really need to make the case that the human body is beautiful and that great art has always celebrated it?

Puritanism is not holy. It is as sick as prurientism!

I am making a lot of this, because some of you will. Some of the Christian magazine writers represented at the press-junket admitted to me sadly, "I'd love to recommend this film. Unfortunately, my constituents will scalp me if I praise a movie with nudity in it."

Sigh. (Say it with me)

SIGH.

So, for those with eyes to see, I recommend Big Fish as a provocative, well-crafted, entertaining cinematic story. For those with no tolerance for genuine art - and I mean the ambiguity here, probably even more than the nudity - I particularly recommend this film.
Saturday, November 22, 2003
LIVE, FROM NEW YORK! IT'S SATURDAY AFTERNOON

I'm in NYC for the second weekend in a row - this time for the press junket for the upcoming release Big Fish and then for meetings about Act One tomorrow. (Much more about Big Fish later. I LIKED it...) I spent most of the afternoon walking all over midtown grinning like a fool because I love being here so much. I lived in NY for two years a decade ago, and I have never recovered. The city seems to me to be like a person. And we are friends.

On Sunday, I'll go hear my sister, Val, sing at Holy Family Church (the UN parish at 315 E 47th) at the 12pm Mass. Then we'll walk around grinning some more and maybe take in a show or just, you know, walk around grinning, before we head back down to the paisans in Little Italy for grinning and eating.

P.S. The 12pm Sunday liturgy at Holy Family Church was wonderful! I give it the coveted four thurible rating! The music was great in terms of selection and performance (mostly paid singers - but that's "the demands of art" as Pope JPII says) , the homily was astute and compelling, the ritual was reverent, and all the supporting cast (ushers, servers, lectors and Eucaristic ministers) were on the spot, well-dressed and prepared. A holy time was had by all. If I lived in Manhattan, I'd be at this Mass every week.
Friday, November 21, 2003
WATCHING BONNIE

My latest on Catholic Exchange...

I have been getting scads of emails from happy people who concur with my take on Bonnie Hunt. That's always nice.

It's particularly nice because I have also been getting hate mail from people who are enraged by an article I wrote saying I really don't like the LOTR movies. One kind and loving Catholic brother sent me the following message in response to my dis of Jackson's films (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP!):

"Nicolosi - You are a hell-spawned bastard!"

Thank God, I have been at this writing stuff long enough to laugh at this individual - although it does give me the creeps to think he is out walking on the streets.

But really, if this is how we talk to our fellow Christians, how are we talking to Warner Bros? And we wonder why Hollywood doesn't hear us?!?
Tuesday, November 11, 2003
BARB IN DC

Here is info on two talks I am giving in DC that are open to the public:

TALK 1: WHAT HOLLYWOOD NEEDS
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 12
7:00pm-9:00pm
WHO: America's Future Foundation
WHERE: Fund for American Studies, 1706 New Hampshire Ave., NW
RSVP to: matthew@americasfuture.org

TALK 2: TOWARDS A CHRISTIAN AESTHETIC OF CINEMA
WHEN: Thursday, Nov. 13
7:00pm-9:30pm
WHO: Kairos (Group of High Church Christians interested in culture)
WHERE: Common Grounds coffee shop (Private room), 3211 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA 22201
Monday, November 10, 2003
SIBLING REPORT

My oldest sister, Cynthia, (all bow) is in Rome finishing up her latest degree - this time a doctorate in theology. (Whereas, I am in Vegas, pulling slots and listening to concerts?! rats.....) Afterward, we are all hoping she will come back to the States and teach again. Everywhere I go, I meet some of her faithful former students who basically just come to hear me because I am related to Cynthia. (And none of you better be thinking I sound like a second child here. Don't even think that!.... It isn't fair!!!...Mommmmmmmmmmmmm!?!)

Anyway, a priest reading this blog sent me a message, "It was interesting to read your blog. I have admired your sister's philosophical work in Rome for years." My response: "!???????!?" I asked Cynthia to send me a blurb on what she is working on, as she doesn't tend to share these things with us mere mortals on a regular basis. I thought to post her response here because it seems to me to dovetail, on an theological level, the work we are doing with entertainment storytelling. She writes:

I don't know who that professor is who wrote to you, but I guess I'm starting to have a reputation in some circles concerning narrative philosophy. My license thesis created somewhat of a stir and the dissertation is expected with some enthusiasm in certain quarters (very insignificant quarters in the wordly sense). Basically, I am showing that St. Thomas Aquinas appreciated the narrative element of human life (because human life is of a narrative nature, of course).

[gulp] Of course it is, of course. [ahem] Anyway, we are both obsessed with story. Something genetic perhaps?

I so look forward to not understanding this dissertation. I expect it will motivate me for the next forty years of my life.
Sunday, November 09, 2003
OLD FRIENDS

Coming to you groggy from Vegas, to which a few friends and I came on pilgrimage for the Simon and Garfunkel reunion "Old Friends" concert at the MGM Grand. It was an incredible two hour experience of reliving "the soundtrack of my life" (thanks, Jan!) in the company of 16,000 other folks who felt the same way. Art's once lovely tenor isn't quite what it once was - but Paul's seems almost better so they balance out, I guess. But I was much more focussed on the haunting power of the music.

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m alright, I’m alright
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far a-way from home, so far away from home

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to it’s knees
Oh, but it’s alright, it’s alright
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
Road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The statue of liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the a-ge’s most uncertain hours
And sing an american tune
Oh, and it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest.
(American Tune, Paul Simon)


I have never understood all of Simon's music, but in the same way I don't "get" a lot of Emily Dickinson's poetry. It leaves me with the sense that the fault is in me, not in the artist's work.

What kind of power does music have that it can turn 16,000 strangers into brethren, and set them singing "Lie-la-lie, (drum) Lie-la-lie-lie-lie-lie, Lie-la-lie (drum), lie-la-lie-la-la-lie-lie-lie, la-la-la-lah-lie!" ?

The concert seemed more like a worship service to me, and afterward, I was wondering why the music at Church can't do for us brothers and sisters in Christ, what Simon's music did for a mass of strangers.

Simon has two things going for him, I think: mastery of craft in music and poetry. Most of the music bandied about in the Catholic Church is really bad musically and really, really bad poetry. (Have to pass some of the medicrity around here. Hanging out in Evangelical circles as is my wont, I can say that while they are much better than Catholics in terms of performance - they actually PAY their musicians! - I find most of their "praise and worship" songs really inane. Kind of like kindergarten level in terms of doctrine and meaning. ie 'YOU are WORTHY, WORTHY, WORTHY, FATHER, YOU are WORTHY".... This kind of stuff makes our Gather Us In feel like the Summa Theologica of hymnody. AND IT'S NOT!

Friday, November 07, 2003
ELF

Bob Newhart actually has the best laughs in this new holiday movie. Newhart (who doesn't really ever act, but rather just inhabits) plays the Papa Elf character who raises a human baby that has crawled into Santa's sack and ends up in the North Pole. There are a lot of sight gags in which Newhart's 2 foot tall character strives to parent Will Farrell's 6 foot two character, although neither of them seems to notice the height difference.

But I get ahead of myself.

Elf is a harmless piece of holiday candy. There are a few clever jokes that will make adults barely chuckle. The film will especially appeal to boys from about age 7 to age 11, because all of the protagonists are male, and nearly all the jokes are physical comedy stuff. There is a nice message about being a good Dad, and about believing in Santa, which comes through despite a sloppy script with paper-thin characterizations and no attempt to provide believable motivations.

There is one early reference to the fact that the Will Farrell character was the product of a youthful affair, the existence of which may or may not be something you want to talk to your five year old about. But, sigh, we're just surrounded with this as reality, aren't we? Can't imagine telling Hollywood to keep it out of the movies.

Elf is what it is: a place to take kids over the holidays without fear of damage to their mortal characters or immortal souls.
Thursday, November 06, 2003
PREACHING ON PREACHING

Thanks to all of you who have kindly swamped me with names of priests from L.A. (and as far away as Australia!) whom we could invite to our entertainment industry retreat.

Without seeming ungrateful, I have been somewhat astounded by some of the referrals, because I have heard many of the men being recommended and they, in no way, fit the definition of "really good preacher."

A lot of people recommended preachers with phrases like "he is a very orthodox priest." Well, being a "really good preacher" has little to do with a person's personal orthodoxy. The only relationship I can see is that cleaving to the truth (as opposed to a lie) will bestow a bit more power to move the human heart...but not enough to redeem a bad sermon. (After all, Lenin and Hitler were powerfully compelling speakers. They used to whip their audiences up into frenzies. )

I think the notion of really "cleaving to" something is what conveys power. As one comment-poster noted, if it seems like most priests are lukewarm in their preaching, it is because they are lukewarm in their believing. Their faith is not Jeremiah's "roaring fire that will consume me if I do not speak."

On the progressive/left/liberal side, bad preachers are afflicted with the fact that they believe being Christian is nice but not necessary, and that piety is akin to a kind of fanaticism.

Case in point. On All Souls's Day, the priest informed us that the Church was moving to merging All Saints and All Souls because the emphasis of All Souls on purgatory and death was a thing of the past in reflecting the notion of a "punishing God." He noted that, "I, only a man, am big enough to not exact punishment. Why do we make God less than me?" (I sat there grumbling to myself, "I want to talk to whomever says you don't exact punishment, Father.")

I'm not even going to go in to the bad theology about sin and the effects of sin that seems to have taken hold in this cleric's brain. I just found it emblematic of so many preachers that he just doesn't seem to believe any more, but he doesn't have the courage or wisdom (both gifts of the Holy Spirit that come to those who ask in prayer) to think it through, so it makes him vague and what seems to me to be exhausted/sad/depressed.

Being orthodox too often doesn't make for great preachers because there is just too much fear present. I have heard just as many bad sermons from men who see themselves as soldiers of John Paul II. The desire to appear reverent and serious make them weirdly wooden and completely uncharismatic. And too often, they aren't "cleaving to " something as much as fighting other things off. This is the kind of preaching that reminds me of the basketball coach the nuns hired to teach algebra when I was in the 9th grade. The guy knew his math, but he used to stand at the board and repeat, "SEE?! A + B = C." When we would ask questions, he would keep repeating in a louder and louder voice, "AAAAA plus BBBBBB ==========CCCCCCCCCCCCCC!"

Anyway, several of the men recommended to me in the spate of emails from priests are known to me as really just mediocre preachers. I think that is interesting....and depressing. NOT ALL. Many of them are unknown to me, and we will check them out for our retreat. But several fellows seem to see good preaching where I encounter ennui and irritation, or just damn nothingness.

In response to the emailer who chided me for confusing entertainment with homiletics.... preaching is not oratory, it needs to be more. It needs to be AT LEAST oratory. Oratory is an art form. Art requires talent. Not all of my students who want to be wonderful writers can be. God has not gifted them for the art form. HOWEVER, there is a competency in the arts that can be acquired by many people who have a passion for it. Competency involves mastery of the craft. I am not asking for genius in preachers. I would be happy with competence.
Wednesday, November 05, 2003
ACT ONE AND AMERICA'S FUTURE

I'll be speaking at the America's Future Foundation in Washington, DC on Wednesday, November 12 at 7:00pm. Check here for more info.
Tuesday, November 04, 2003
"MANY A MEANDERING SERMON ONE HEARS, IN WHICH THE PREACHER AIMS AT NOTHING - AND HITS IT." Richard Whately

I promise this isn't "Nark on the Clergy" week, but something happened last night that just begs to be shared, principally because it seems to me part of the reason the Church - at least here in Los Angeles - is in such a slumber.

"The world looks at ministers out of the pulpit to know what they mean when in it." Richard Cecil

So, I was at a meeting of Catholics in Media Associates (CIMA) which is, ostensibly, the official outreach of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to the entertainment industry. We got to preliminary discussions about our annual entertainment industry retreat, and before long I was volunteering to coordinate it (for reasons of being a control freak who just can't stand to take the chance of going to a retreat that I might hate..okay, I said it!).

"I love a serious preacher, who speaks for my own sake, and not for his own; who seeks my salvation and not his own vainglory." Bp. Jean Baptiste Masillion

So, I asked the assembled CIMA members, "Can anybody recommend a priest to be our retreatmaster who is a really good preacher?" I wasn't being facetious. It just occurred to me that in six years in living in Los Angeles, I had yet to hear a very good homily, and it seemed to me that maybe I have just been going to the wrong parishes.

"That is not the best sermon which makes the hearers go away talking about the preacher, but which makes them go away thoughtfully - hastening to be alone." Gilbert Burnet

Twenty people looked back at me blankly. I looked up from my notebook. "A really good preacher. Does anybody know one here in L.A.?"

"If the Scriptures had small-pox, his sermon would never catch it." Tryon Edwards

Deafening silence. Everybody sat there staring and brooding and scratching their heads. There was a collective "Hmmmmmm..." I - half incredulous, but with desperation tinged voice - laughed out loud. "Come on. There has to be one -- in this whole archdiocese! Some priest who people love to see walking up the aisle on Sunday because of his preaching? They knew what I meant: Somebody who can expound on the Scriptures and stir hearts at the same time?

"There are certain things in which mediocrity is not to be endured: poetry, music, painting and public speaking." Bryuere

A few names were thrown out without much conviction. After the meeting, one of my friends at the meeting, who happens to be a producer, recommended one priest to me with the shrug "sometimes he can really be good in his homilies." To which I responded, "If you were casting a project, and this priest was auditioning, would you give him the job?" My friend laughed and then shrugged, "No, probably not. Not if my livelihood depended on it!"

It is very easy to preach, but very hard to preach well. No other profession demands half so much mental labor as the clerical." Nathaniel Emmons

Now, granted, everybody at the meeting is in some sense a professional storyteller, so maybe our standards are higher than the average sheep? But it would seem to behoove the pastorally minded shpeherd to such a flock as this to be at least as good in his preaching, as his sheep are in their nine-to-five activities.

When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. Mark 6:34
NOTHING FISHY ABOUT FINDING NEMO

My latest reprinted on Catholic Exchange...
Monday, November 03, 2003
MYSTIC SLITHER

Critics have been showering the project with their most pre-Oscarish adjectives like, "Important," "Thoughtful," and "Provocative." A legion of my friends - many of them Christians - have told me, "You MUST see Mystic River!"

Now, in the morning after wake of the film, I'm sitting here shaking my head wondering, has everybody lost their minds?!?!

I am told that the book, Mystic River was great. I haven't read it. The adaptation is a mess. It is a sad squandering of an incredbly talented cast, in a project that ultimately comes down to the thesis: bad things that happen can screw you up. One of my brilliant TV producing friends assures me that the film's flaws come down to dreadful directing by Clint Eastwood. I don't have a trained-enough eye to see those flaws. But I can talk about the script.

The three main characters are all badly conceived and awkwardly developed. I imagine the main character is Sean Penn, only because he is the protagonist of the action that it seems like the movie is ultimately about. The storyline of Kevin Bacon and his wife is incomprehensible and unmotivated. The use of two less than minor characters as the ultimate antagonists is cheap and unsatisfying. The legions of supporting characters - from the Savage brothers to Bacon's despicable cop partner, to Laura Linney as Dr. Sweet Housewife-Mrs. Evil Dominatrix - are all underdeveloped and uncompelling.

The main flaw of the film from a Christian standpoint is the failure to show (as Flannery the Great would say it) "Grace being offered." In the deadly climax of the film, it was fine to have Sean Penn knife and shoot his friend, played by Tim Robbins, in a mistaken frenzy of grief for his own murdered daughter. What was missing was any hesitation in the Penn character, when Robbins' character lapses into confusion due to residue from his abduction and molestation as a child. Robbins character suggests that Penn would be a different man if he had been the one abducted, and this should have been a doorway to some human compassion/hesitation in the scene. The moment could easily have been "grace being offered", which would ultimately redeem the theme of this film. One might also expect that Jimmy (Penn) would have hesitated because he had already murdered one man, and maybe the intervening years have taught him that that was a bad choice. But noooooooooooo. He actually states that he has recovered from the previous murder with no ill effects.

I want to be clear. The film is not bad because it ends with Jimmy killing Dave. It is bad because it doesn't show any deliberation on Jimmy's part. He's like an animal, not a man.

But I don't think the director really had any understanding of the theme of the project, and so the opportunity to actually make this film "Important" and "Thoughtful" was lost.

I also think it would have been a more daring story if the Dave character had not killed the pedophile. That clouds the waters of his own murder, making Jimmy seem less culpable somehow because, in the end, the guy he murdered was a murderer.

As Aristotle said in the Poetics, real tragedy is in bad things happening to good people.

As a New Englander, I also cannot stand movies with actors slaughtering our accent. It always becomes the focus of every scene, which it shouldn't.

So, my ultimate judgment on Mystic River is that it will add nothing to your spiritual journey on the plus side. On the minus side, it will make you more scared of your neighbor and more paranoid for your kids. But if that's what you want, be my guest.