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The Sword of Damocles
By Sister Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.


Countdown to Zero
Winter's Bone
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: Servant of All
The Gates
Film Capsules
Catholic Classifications

Countdown to Zero

COUNTDOWN TO ZERO (not yet rated, PG): On September 25, 1961, almost 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy warned the General Assembly of the United Nations: "...the weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us." President Kennedy told delegates that all men, women and children, at the height of the Cold War, lived under a nuclear sword of Damocles.

We still do, according to director/writer Lucy Walker's (Blindsight) new documentary. In it, President Kennedy's warning takes on chilling proportions because of the accessibility of "loose nukes" or materials left unguarded by nations of the former Soviet Union; the potential for launch or detonation by accident, error or misjudgment; and the growing capability of rogue nations and terrorists to obtain or enrich uranium or plutonium and build nuclear weapons.

This 90-minute film is a course in history, geopolitics, ethics and science. It takes as its starting point the fact that most people today do not fear nuclear bombs; the public does not even know how many countries have atomic bombs. The official answer is nine. The film states that "there are about 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world, still. The good news is that there used to be 60,000." Today the United States and Russia each have about 1,500 hydrogen bombs on missiles that can be ready to launch within 15 minutes.

Countdown to Zero does not manipulate the audience's emotions. Instead, it respects the intelligence of viewers. It is a relentless, rational appeal for us to consider the reality of the clear and present danger of nuclear weapons and nuclear matter. It presents the history of nuclear arms, from Robert Oppenheimer's realization of the power of the split atom and the Manhattan Project, through the Cold War, to President Barack Obama saying at a world summit in Washington this past April that any reduction in nuclear arsenals begins with the United States. A legally binding agreement for all nations is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Countdown to Zero is produced by Participant Productions, the same company that made 2006's Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth. The documentary is filled with the testimony of experts who conclude that nations must have the will to reduce and eliminate nuclear arms, and have the means for verification. Public opinion is essential to nuclear arms elimination. As the Rev. Richard Cizik puts it in the film, "We have to change our way of thinking. And if we can't change our way of thinking, we won't survive. It's that simple." War violence.


Winter's Bone

WINTER'S BONE (not yet rated, R): Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, The Burning Plain) is 17 years old. She lives in a run-down house in the Ozarks with her mentally sick mother and younger brother and sister. Her drug-dealing father, whom we never see, has jumped bail and the bondsman threatens to take the house and land. Ree vows to find her dad so he can come home and take care of them.

Ree begins a kind of Via Dolorosa as she goes from relative to friend to her father's known associates, trying to locate him. She is continually warned off by the womenfolk who won't let her near the grizzled boss who is running methamphetamine labs in the mountains. At one point, they attack her to stop her. Her Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes, Miracle at St. Anna), her father's only brother, seems to come and go. Will he help or hinder her? We are never sure.

Directed and co-written by Debra Granik (Down to the Bone) and Anne Rosellini, the film captures a place that time seems to have forgotten, but where drugs and violence are the backbone of the economy.

Jennifer Lawrence's performance captures this bleak existence against an austere landscape with strength and love. The plaintive mountain singing is hard-won and joyless; the cinematography places the audience in every scene, right beside Ree.

This is Granik's third film, and like her two previous movies, Winter's Bone deals with the role of illegal drugs in society and their effect on the family dynamic. Though Winter's Bone is a small, independent motion picture, it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

At its heart, this is a woman's film. Although some of the old women attack her, they save her from a worse fate. In the end, they help her in a shocking manner while putting their own lives at risk. Through it all, Ree perseveres, steadfast and true. She is a cinematic heroine. So far, Winter's Bone is one of the best films of the year and Jennifer Lawrence, at 19, is accomplished beyond her years. Drugs, violence, language.

ONDINE (not yet rated, PG-13): Syracuse (Colin Farrell, In Bruges) fishes off the coast of Ireland, though the catch is meager. He is a recovering alcoholic and the divorced father of Annie (Alison Barry), who has kidney disease.

One day, Syracuse draws up a beautiful young woman, Ondine (Alicja Bachleda, Trade), in his net. She is alive and won't let him call for help. Syracuse lets her stay in his deceased mother's cabin, which is isolated and safe. Whenever she goes fishing with him, Syracuse has miraculous hauls and he believes she is a mermaid.

Syracuse doesn't know what to do with Ondine, to whom he is much attracted, so he goes to Confession to ask advice. The priest (Stephen Rea, The Crying Game) and Syracuse know one another. To Syracuse, the priest is a strong influence who will keep his confidences, even when he knows Syracuse will never say his penance.

The precocious Annie is taken with Ondine and researches all about selkies—mythic creatures of the sea. But Ondine is in trouble, running from a drug trafficker, and trouble follows her, threatening the small village and Ondine's new friends.

Like director Neil Jordan's other films, the cinematography is beautiful and atmospheric. The genre of Ondine, however, is a change for Jordan, whose dramas can be taut, deep, violent and characterized by the unexpected. Ondine has its darkly human moments as well as redemption. Drugs, violence, language, sexuality.

ARCHBISHOP FULTON J. SHEEN: SERVANT OF ALL: Although produced as a fund-raiser to support Archbishop Sheen's cause for beatification, this one-hour documentary is engaging, informative, humorous and inspiring.

The film includes family photographs and follows Sheen's life from Illinois to Belgium to New York City with testimonies from those who knew him well. I wish they could have included more clips from his television shows because the ones that are shown left me wanting more. It is unfortunate that one of the two featured Sheen jokes is a blonde joke ("Did you know that blondes dye by their own hand?"), but this is offset by the poignancy of one of his final homilies in which he speaks of the suffering he has endured.

Finely edited and produced, the DVD will be available for purchase from in time for Christmas, but parishes and groups can arrange for group showings now via the Web site.

THE GATES (ABC, check local listings): This drama of the vampire variety takes place in an exclusive gated community where the citizens feel safe. A new police chief arrives in time to investigate the disappearance of a repairman. I am not sure how much blood lust the audience can handle, but time and ratings will tell.


LETTERS TO JULIET (A-2, PG): This delightful film is a throwback to classic Hollywood romances. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) accompanies her restaurateur fiancé (Gael García Bernal) to Verona, Italy, on a pre-honeymoon, but he is too involved in buying supplies for his restaurant. Sophie answers a letter written to Shakespeare's Juliet and has an adventure while helping an old woman find her first love. Mature themes.

PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME (A-2, PG-13): Jake Gyllenhaal plays an adopted prince of Persia who must regain the kingdom from his uncle and win the princess of a conquered city and a magical dagger. Based on a 2003 video game, there are plenty of special effects and a mild love story, but overall this seemed rather lame and too long. Battle and action violence.

SHREK FOREVER AFTER (A-2, PG): The fourth and supposedly final installment of this successful franchise has Shrek in a midlife crisis. Rumpelstiltskin tricks him and Shrek is cast into an alternate universe where he and Fiona have never met, Donkey doesn't know him and Puss in Boots has become fat and lazy. Fiona is a warrior who has no time for Shrek. In the end, all is restored in Far Far Away land. Mild language.

FATHER OF MY CHILDREN (Le père de mes enfants) (not yet rated): A financially overextended French film producer, with a loving wife and three daughters as well as a secret second family, takes his own life. The film is well-acted and held my attention, but seemed to be missing the third act. In French with English subtitles. Off-screen suicide.

A-1 General patronage
A-2 Adults and adolescents
A-3 Adults
L Limited adult audience
O Morally offensive

The USCCB's Office for Film and Broadcasting gives these ratings. See

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