October 30, 2008


The DVD "Millions" (from the 2004 British movie) is perfect for All Saints Day and All Souls Day. "Millions" is a "Miracle of Marcellino" for the twenty-first century.

Damian (Alex Etel), a little boy who reads about and talks to saints--when they appear to him he recognizes them and rattles off their birth and death dates--comes into the possession of a sustantial bag of money. Little does he know it's stolen. His older brother, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon)--a budding young wheeler and dealer--finds out about Damian's stash, and wants to invest it in real estate. However, Damian wants to give it to the poor. Although they disagree about how the money is to be spent, they agree on one thing: not to tell anyone, especially not their widowed Dad (James Nesbitt). But it's not long before the robbers come looking for their money and things turn dangerous.

"Millions" is an exploration of both taking the Gospel at face value, and the childlike faith that is needed to enter the kingdom of heaven. When Damian and Anthony's Dad finally finds out about the money, he is as tempted as anyone to use the money for himself. All the adults have their rationalizations, but not Damian, who angrily stands up to them. The tagline for the film is: "Can anyone be truly good?" Damian wants to be good so he can go to heaven and see his deceased Mum (All Souls), but we also gather that he understands the essence of the Gospel and wants to be good "for goodness' sake."


Heavenly appearances (All Saints)--which are portrayed in both an utterly organic and utterly magical way--include: St. Francis, St. Nicholas, St. Clare, the Ugandan Martyrs, St. Joseph and St. Peter. This film is perhaps one of the most charming ever made (marred only by Damian catching his father in bed with a government lady who came to talk at his school). The filming is lush, glorious and a truly artful. Kids--who probably think along the same lines as Damian--won't enjoy "Millions" as much as teens and adults in our various stages of jadedness. A great question to ask ourselves is simply: What would I do with a million dollars (that wasn't really mine)?


I love living in Chicago--it's a great theater town! And last night, three other sisters and myself had a front row seat in hell. Literally. "Screwtape Letters"--the C. S. Lewis book about a senior devil coaching a junior devil how to tempt humans--is now playing at the Mercury Theater: 773-325-1700.

Our tickets said "obstructed view." Hmmmm. What was our view obstructed by? The stage itself. Sitting down, we were eye-level with the edge of the stage, and our knees were pressed up against it. We are not making this up. The theater was ice-cold. I mean icy. Why? Because we were right next to a large air vent from the great outdoors (some fire code, no doubt). Max McLean (Uncle Screwtape) has some mighty acting chops, and some mighty saliva glands. It was like being under a steady rainforest mist. When the fog machine started blowing RIGHT IN OUR FACES, we couldn't stop laughing. It was like St. Alphonsus di Liguori's "Preparation for Death." It was truly an experience of hell and an opportunity to "offer it up." Sr. Anne kept talking about hot cocoa and echinacea all the way home on the CTA.

Atmospherics notwithstanding, "Screwtape" is magnificent. If you've read the book, it'll all come "flooding" back to you (in more ways than one). Max McLean*--with British accent--is outstanding, and his minion-secretary, Toadpipe (Yvonne Gougelet for our production), is one agile and ticklish demon. She takes dictation, bounds and contorts around the stage, and, most hilariously, acts out what we humans look like to the realms below. (One very cool thing about having our schnozzes eye-level with "the-demon-lady-all-in-gray" was that we could see her toenails which were painted a glossy gray to match her fingernails. Tres, tres cool.)

I could see "Screwtape" over and over again. It's like audiobooks gone visual. Much to chew on. A pert reminder of what's really important in time and eternity, and what's it's all for. (One man leaving the theater said: "Boy, am I convicted!") Just remember the following:
His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape----------senior demon
Wormwood---------------------------------junior demon
Toadpipe-----------------------------------Screwtape's secretary
The Patient---------------------------------a young man
The Enemy----------------------------------God
our father below------------------------------Satan
Some highlights:

--The idea that death is the worst thing that could happen to us was invented by the devil ("our father below").

--Pleasure was invented by God, and hell--even with all its research--has not been able to produce even one true pleasure.
--Satan requires everything from us and gives us nothing in return.
--Middle age is a great time for the devil to wear you down.
--The devil loves to use vagueness to keep us subjugated.
--It's not so much sin or "big sins" that the devil uses. He'll use whatever will take us away from God.
--The devil is a "realist."
--To believe in the possibility/existence of love is a heresy in Hades.
--The devil--like he convinced Adam and Eve to be--is suspicious of God--there's no such thing as love, so what is He really up to?

If you live in Chi-town, or are planning to come here between now and January, go see something truly "Wicked": "Screwtape Letters."
*Max McLean has done much Christian theater and recorded three versions of the Bible on CD. An ad for the Bible CDs in the playbill says: "Screwtape does NOT recommend these. Listen at your own risk."

October 28, 2008


OK--here's this little cutie-patootie's story, third hand, but I'm sure the gist is correct. Little Owen was having seizures IN THE WOMB, and was so bad off when he was born that the hospital sent him home, with hospice, to die. The doctor overseeing his condition was interviewed by some MEDIA OUTLET about dying babies. Since Owen was such a hopeless case, the doctor decided to take the media people to his house to see a "dying baby." Owen's family had been praying to Blessed James Alberione for a miracle. As soon as the doctor saw little Owen that day, he realized THIS BABY IS NOT DYING. Needless to say, THE MEDIA GOT TO COVER A MIRACLE INSTEAD.

October 21, 2008


This is a maddening little film. Just like the main character, Poppy (Sally Hawkins). I KNOW people like Poppy. I think everyone does. Sometimes I even adopt a Poppy-like attitude (for small increments of time). But why should I be maddened by someone who has chosen to enjoy life, savor life, be chipper all the time AND try to spread that attitude toward others? Isn't that perverse of me?
Poppy's seemingly superficial breezing through life isn't exactly that. She's a fantastic elementary school teacher, tries to help a troubled student and a homeless man. So what makes her annoying? When people don't respond to her cheeriness, she turns it up. The more uptight they are, the more footloose and fancy-free she becomes. Especially in the case of her driving instructor, Scott (the BAFTA-worthy Eddie Marsan). Scott is so livid at one point that he is spitting in his beard as he fumes. One could say that Scott got himself all worked up. But Poppy is the catalyst. She seems to enjoy pushing people to their limits in a detached way (can't you see he's getting upset?) That's what makes her annoying, and that's what makes this film very philosophical.
Poppy's philosophy IS "happy-go-lucky," and although no tragedy touches her in the movie beyond a stolen bike and a leaking bathroom, she faces everything with the same super-positivity. It's not that she doesn't care, it's that she's made the choice to smile and laugh and dance in the midst of everything. Her philosophy is put to the test only in little ways (the biggest being Scott's stalking her and eventually blowing up at her). But she is dead serious about being the ebullient person she has chosen to be (and probably is naturally). It seems that she truly wishes others were as free as she was, and by doggedly being herself tries to give them permission to join her perpetual happy hour.
This slice-of-life movie stuck with me as I wrestled with her neat little philosophy of life and tried to find loopholes. (So I guess it's a better movie than I originally thought it was.) However, Poppy does not have a character arc. There's no journey. Her encounter with Scott leaves them both the same. If she has a journey, it's either in the past or the future.
What's "wrong" with being happy ALL the time, having a one-note emotional palette? Couldn't it even be considered heroic? ("The Myth of Sisyphus" kept coming to mind.) Perhaps, but it just doesn't seem very human.

October 5, 2008


Part rant, part search, part public discourse (much needed), part documentary, part propaganda, part comedy routine, Bill Maher's "Religulous" (soft "g") is nothing new. No new questions, no new answers. 
It's rated "R," but aside from several seconds of a woman's breasts and crude language, it could be PG-13. I'm glad it's not, because young people--with no background, context or guidance--might get confused by Maher's self-proclaimed doubt mongering, at a time in their lives when they're doing very well in the doubt department.
Kudos to Maher for starting off with full disclosure of his own religious upbringing and views. His mother was Jewish, his father was Catholic (presumably Irish), and he was raised Catholic until he decided it was all bunk when he was a teenager. His father also stopped going to church around then because, as his mother candidly says, "We were using contraception, and the Church doesn't allow that." (When's the last time you heard that kind of plain and simple honesty?) 
Maher's premise is threefold: a) We can't know anything about God with certainty, so our stance should be doubt. b) Religion is a destructive and harmful force that belongs to an unenlightened age. Since God isn't talking to us, others are filling in for Him with their evil and pernicious agendas. c) Religion is a neurological disorder. 
What keeps "Religulous" fresh is Maher's approach. He's a comedian by trade, and a bright one, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He asks questions that he really wants to know the answer to, and is willing to be surprised, speechless and look foolish (and cause the same in his interviewees). He is extremely inconsistent in his own purported lack of belief, notwithstanding his final "religion-will-bring-about-the-death-of-us-all" tirade at the end. He asks Christian truckers to pray over him. He relates a story of some bargain he made with God when he was forty and wanted to quit smoking. He's obsessed, really, with religion, and I'm sure now has an army of believers praying for him to see the light. If you stay for the credits, you'll hear him (consistently inconsistent) say to his mom--who passed away in 2007, but is in the film--"See you in heaven." 
Being the moviemaker, Maher has the upper hand in correcting (via witty subtitles) misspeakers, while his own inaccuracies go unchallenged. (I'm sure a subtitled rebuttal will follow on YouTube.) There's much misinformation tumbling forth from Maher's mouth, but it doesn't feel blasphemous because Maher just cares so much about this stuff. He seeks almost LIKE a teenager, and it's astounding that he hasn't resolved certain basic universal human quandaries yet. The religionists he interrogates don't quite clinch the deal, and take him only halfway. (But I'm betting the editing killed many good answers and comebacks. The brilliant scientist/Christian apologist Francis Collins was only on for a suspiciously short time, and he has some incredibly compelling arguments for belief.) 
Maher's anger flairs mostly at fellow Jews, and at the Jesus-actor from a Bible theme park who seemed to touch a nerve when he says that sex and drugs and other escapes may be used to fill the God-shaped hole in each one of us, but it's never going to make us complete and happy. Maher also ponders what "Jesus" said to him about water having three properties: steam, liquid and ice as an explanation of the Trinity. This seemed to make a great deal of sense to Maher. 

Maher is comfortable talking to anyone: ultra-orthodox Jews, former Mormons, televangelists, evolution-deniers, radical Muslim jihadist rappers, and an extremely grumpy Vatican priest. 
In general, the Catholic Church comes off looking fairly OK, especially when, exasperated with fundamentalists, Maher turns to astronomer Fr. George Coyne, SJ, of the Vatican Observatory (not the grump), who tells him in no uncertain terms that the Bible is not a science textbook. Coyne calls fundamentalism a "plague," and reiterates John Paul II's famous statement that "neo-Darwinist evolution is now more than just a hypothesis." 
So, when Maher later insists on interpreting the Bible literally, citing "talking snakes" and the Jonah story, we KNOW that he knows better. This is intellectual dishonesty and a real smoke screen behind which he hides. And he's just stumped by the Virgin Birth (as are many theologians), returning to it over and over. He puts it on a par with Scientology's creed. 
There's much to agree with in "Religulous." Bad religion is bad religion. Bad actions of religious people are bad. But what about the good religion has done? No mention. (Whatever good religion has produced, Maher believes is available without God.) The most guileless folks that seemed to touch Maher's heart were the black and white Southern Christian truckers, crammed in their tiny trailer chapel, and the "ex-gay" dude, every bit as worldly-wise as Maher. 
Unlike Richard Dawkins (who is an atheist, while Maher is an agnostic), Maher frequently sticks up for Jesus, dissociating Him from his followers, something Jesus never did. ("Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME?") Like Dawkins, however, Maher pompously blunders about the religious world without the most basic theological concepts. And if, in his travels, he was apprised of any, those interviews were cut out completely. (E.g., Maher judges the writers of the Gospel by 21st century news-reporting standards.) 
Maher thinks religion is for "comfort," and that that comfort comes at the price of religions annihilating each other and the world in some great, inevitable, "will of God" doomsday delusion. He's half right. There are far too many scary Christians who believe it is OUR duty to provoke a violent apocalypse so that Jesus will come back.
In a media world of cynicism and spin, at least the jesters are taking religion seriously, even while trying to discredit it.

October 4, 2008


This French film is well-constructed and beautifully acted, but, alas, is a "message film." What is the message? (Spoiler alert!--but you will probably guess the ending in the first twenty minutes, as I did.) Juliette (the ageless Kristin Scott Thomas who speaks French through the whole movie!) just got out of prison after serving fifteen years for killing her six-year-old son. Yup: "Mercy-killing." He had a painful terminal illness.

She goes to stay with her sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), who--huge logic gap--didn't know her nephew was terminally ill (even though he would scream in pain and could barely move until he was fatally injected by his doctor-mom). Once Lea finds out that it was a mercy-killling, all tension and dark clouds vanish. (Why DID she think her sister did it?) What Juliette did was OK.

I was really enjoying this film (hoping my guess was wrong), but I thought it strange that this French movie was filled with children everywhere (I mean, this is France, right?) Well, the nation doth protest too much. When we are cut off from the Source of Life, the ONLY choice left is death. A culture of death. That parades as a culture of life.

"I've Loved You So Long" joins the growing catalogue of euthanasia films (and I shan't be surprised if it wins an award): "Million Dollar Baby," "The Sea Inside," etc.