Book Reviews Subscribe Faith-filled Family Links for Learners Ask a Franciscan Editorial Entertainment Watch Saints for Our Lives Contents

By James Arnold

Visits to America's Dark Side





FAR FROM HEAVEN (A-3, PG-13) is writer-director Todd Haynes’s aesthetically gorgeous and genteel emulation of the 1950s so-called woman’s picture, with a major difference in frankness. Julianne Moore’s Cathy Whitaker is an affluent mother of two in 1957 suburban Hartford who seems to have everything. But, as the title suggests, this is not paradise.

Haynes is a creative independent, working finally with a decent $14 million budget. He explores in the stylish 1950s melodrama mode what could not be explored then, but he does it with that era’s subtle taste.

Cathy is a paragon in family and community—a virtual saint. The local society paper describes her as “a woman as devoted to her children as she is kind to negroes.”

This classic heroine discovers that her husband (Dennis Quaid), a top sales executive, is a homosexual. Cathy becomes drawn to the companionship of Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), her young and kind African-American gardener. They slowly fall in love as gossipy tongues wag.

An homage to stylish director Douglas Sirk, Far is a reworking of his All That Heaven Allows (1955), in which (to show how times change), heroine Jane Wyman was a widow, and the gardener (sweet irony, Rock Hudson) was only too young and too blue-collar.

The triumph of Haynes and his actors is their success in doing the new story straight and so much to-the-heart that only a rock would not be moved. A sad story, elegantly told, with moral irony and insight; recommended for mature viewers.


EIGHT MILE (O, R): Showbiz’s most controversial man and its biggest white pop star, Eminem (Marshall Mathers III), is hard to ignore. He’s sold 30 million albums worldwide in his three-year career and he’s a fixture on MTV.

His movie debut, while as gritty as his rap, has been shrewdly guided by pros, including director Curtis Hanson (creator of multi-Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential).

Eminem (now 30), survivor of a wretched childhood, is angry. His outrageous, ultra-violent lyrics have targeted practically everybody—except blacks, since he says he never uses the N-word. The many anti-Ems are unlikely to be won over by Eight Mile (named after the road that divides white and black in the rapper’s native Detroit).

But the fair-minded will have to concede the guy is riveting in his carefully constructed first movie, a semi-autobiographical tale (shot in derelict Detroit locations) that wants to be a kind of hip-hop Rocky. It helps educate the uninformed, not only about Eminem’s impoverished roots, but also about the basic cultural functions of rap.

The music (the beat, the rhyming) works in the streets as a sublimated form of hostility against whatever-you-got (girlfriends, relatives, rivals, cops, bosses). Em’s “Rabbit” Smith, self-described “white trash” who lives in a trailer with his baby sister, dissolute mom (Kim Basinger) and her brutal boyfriend, has a talent for it.

His grim home life, and un-Em-like kindness to the little girl and others (including a gay co-worker), earn him sympathy. He’s soft also in a romantic/sexual fling with a soul mate (Brittany Murphy). More convincingly, he’s bonded with a closely-knit entourage of mostly black pals who encourage him to enter local rap contests (a verbal equivalent to boxing). “Once they hear you,” they tell him, “it won’t matter what color you are.”

Personally, I prefer Tony Bennett, but that’s another story. A rap film can’t be made without uncouth language; also much fighting and stupid juvenile behavior; otherwise, well above average in reality and power; for mature viewers only.


BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE(A-3, R): You either love or hate Michael Moore, the bright blue-collar guy from Flint, who is a formidable one-man anti-Establishment force in American movies. Moore confronts people, often rich or celebrated, when they least expect it, with pointed moral questions about their actions.

His focus this time is on guns and violence in America, using the tragic Denver-area Columbine shootings as a takeoff point. (The teenage killers bowled before school that day.) He starts by applying deadpan at a bank that’s giving away a free rifle with each new account. The conclusion is a tense one-on-one with Charlton Heston, the dramatic and feisty president of the National Rifle Association, at the actor’s posh estate.

In his laconic way, Moore satirizes the U.S. gun culture. (“If guns made you safe, America would be the safest country in the world.”) He tries in vain (using interviews, archival footage, comparative numbers) to explain why it exists here and not, say, in Canada or Japan. This is all thoughtful material, on the ordinary person’s level anyhow, but likely to convince mostly the already saved.

Moore can be angry, as when he talks about the six-year-old who killed another six-year-old, or poignant, as when he defends hard-pressed welfare mothers. He’s funniest when he just lets people talk: A kid from a school Eric Harris once attended in Michigan says, “I make bombs, but nothing big.”

Moore’s most resonant attack is on the media and press, for their obsession with violence in all forms, neglect of social issues like pollution and poverty, and creation of a climate of fear.

While most moral criticism focuses on the Sixth Commandment, Moore turns to the Fifth: Americans kill a lot of people every year, both at home and abroad. He asks why, and it’s a dialogue that needs to be continued. One of Moore’s better efforts; satisfactory for mature viewers.


CATHOLIC AS SPY: The CBS docudrama miniseries that aired in November on F.B.I. turncoat Robert Hanssen (Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story, with William Hurt in the title role) was unique in its murky, almost Graham Greene-ish mix of espionage and Catholic angst. Hanssen, father of six, seemed to be a model citizen, an intensely active traditional churchgoer and patriot.

But how can you be dedicated to Opus Dei and betray your country to the Russians for 20 years? How can you be the sort of fellow who bans words like “full frontal nudity” and “homosexual” from table talk and describes a strip club as “an occasion of sin” and yet carry on an outrageously expensive secret affair with a beautiful-but-dim exotic dancer?

The dense, introspective script based on nine months of research by liberal intellectual and novelist Norman Mailer (an odd choice for this project) rejects simple hypocrisy or a need for money. It suggests that Hanssen (now serving a life sentence in federal prison) was tormented by conflicting good and evil impulses, both in the spy trade and in his personal morals.

Among the twists: The extramarital adventure was sexless and even affection-less (much to the dancer’s chagrin) and seemed designed to woo her back to God and the Church. Now that was an unusual episode in a culture whose favorite image of spies is James Bond.

This Hanssen is clearly troubled, and his rigid approach to religion just another psychotic symptom. The considerably talented Hurt can’t make Hanssen sympathetic. The closest he comes is in a final prayer that also seems prideful even in remorse: “See me as at least equal to the Good Thief....Let me hear, ‘This day you will be with me in paradise.’”

Mary-Louise Parker does much better as his puzzled and neurotic wife, Bonnie, who gives him the loyalty and (a bit pitifully) the love he needs to survive his disgrace.


SEX AND THE CITY (HBO): Whenever I tune in this long-running HBO Sunday night series, one of its four unwed and famously uncommitted female protagonists is either having sex or talking about it. This isn’t all the show is about, and it has perceptive or funny moments. But mostly these characters and the men they encounter (almost always flawed jerks) are not people you want to spend time with.

Yet Sex wins hayloads of awards. The media attention has largely been favorable, and its smart, fashionable, profane-talking heroines (especially Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie) have all but become icons of liberated 21st-century urban women.

But times change. In the upscale The New Republic on November 18, 2002, contributing editor Lee Siegel, noting that the show’s male creators are both gay, accuses the series of misogyny. These high-achieving women, he writes, are “constantly humiliated, insulted and embarrassed without the slightest effect on their egos or their self-esteem.”

Siegel argues that the characters’ endless quest for sex, both impersonal and somehow “perfect” (as an end in itself), is more typical of a certain type of gay male sex. It’s “the biggest hoax perpetrated on straight single women in the history of entertainment.” Wow.

Siegel has other issues to explore (in three pages), including that the women don’t resemble any actual persons who live in New York and there is no reason why they would ever have become friends.

His point regarding the writers is to suggest not a gay conspiracy but rather (as always) that a show reflects its authors’ attitudes. Yet its glamorization of the single life and each woman’s constant discouragement in finding a decent guy—someone to share her life with—amount to an “assault on heterosexual romantic hope.” That’s nicely put. I knew it was something like that.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ask a Franciscan  | The Bible: Light to My Path  | Book Reviews  | Entertainment Watch
Editorial  | Editor’s Message  | Faith-filled Family  | Links for Learners
Saints for Our Lives  | Web Catholic  | Back Issues

Return to

An Web Site from the Franciscans and
Franciscan Media     ©1996-2016 Copyright