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by James Arnold

From Plucky Young Heroines to Demons

WONDERLAND

WONDERLAND (Not Rated, R) describes four November days in the life of a troubled blue-collar family in London, observed with compassion and the sharp detail of a documentary by director Michael Winterbottom (Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo). Mom and Dad are empty nesters, barely on civil terms.

But the focus is on their adult daughters. Molly is in nervous late pregnancy with an insecure partner who’s wandering the city on his motorcycle. Beautician Debbie is unsettled. She and woman-chasing ex-husband, Dan, are neglecting their 11-year-old son, Jack, who’s being raised by the TV. Nadia, a waitress meeting men through a dating service, is discouraged by a string of Mr. Wrongs, but she has a secret admirer.

All these sad stories are intercut often so they comment on each other. Director Winterbottom constantly provides the context of the city and its crowded high-rises, streets, pubs, bingo parlors and soccer matches to suggest the epidemic of loneliness.

The adult material is morally observed. In the end, the characters are resilient and there is hope. (Molly’s childbirth and the search for Jack, who’s wandered away during the Guy Fawkes Day fireworks, provide emotional bonding.) Humane, clever, grown-up storytelling; the dialect can be troublesome for Yanks; otherwise recommended for mature viewers.

NURSE BETTY

NURSE BETTY (A-4, R) is a much-appreciated fun-and-food-for-thought film from director Neil Labute, 37, a Mormon whose earlier movies (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) have been brave but testy indictments of middle-class values. Betty still has satirical bite but is a delightful fairy tale about a nice-but-downtrodden waitress from Kansas, who finally gets something good out of life.

As Betty, Renée Zellweger is sweet. She’s so bereft of affection from her crooked and unfaithful husband that she is totally absorbed in a TV soap opera and its hero-surgeon (Greg Kinnear).

When she witnesses hubby being bumped off by some out-of-state hit men, she’s shocked into semi-amnesia and the delusion that she’s a nurse in the TV soap. She drives off to her beloved fictional doctor in Los Angeles, pursued by the murderers (thoughtful Morgan Freeman, excitable loose cannon Chris Rock).

The chase winds through the Southwest, crosscutting between Betty and the killers. Freeman begins to idealize Betty as his own media-created romantic fantasy, a wholesome Doris Day. When Betty gets to L.A., she meets Kinnear. In the movie’s best sequence, he thinks she’s a gifted actress wannabe trying to impress him, falls for her and gives her a starring role.

Reality catches up in some funny-sad scenes. We discover the trite but beautiful truth about Betty as she endures improbable adventures. Despite her delusions, she remains the moral center amid all the dumbness and cruelty around her. She’s smart and warm and deserves a happy ending. Problem language, moments of violence and sexuality; otherwise, a wacko fable in the Forrest Gump vein; for mature audiences.

THE EXORCIST

THE EXORCIST (A-4, R): William Friedkin’s 1973 film of the William Peter Blatty best-seller may not be the best demon movie ever made, but it’s the one everybody remembers. It defined the satanic in movies and spawned decades of klutzy imitations.

No surprise that it should be re-released (with 11 original minutes restored, plus remixed sound) in this time of spooky popular tastes (from The Sixth Sense to the morbid hero worship of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs). Devils are not especially cutting-edge topics in theological circles but they thrive in the popular imagination. They always make anti-photogenic villains and sell a lot of tickets to horror movies.

The fictional Blatty story was inspired by a real case that occurred in a Washington, D.C., suburb. The film stars 12-year-old Linda Blair as the horribly brutalized victim who cannot be cured by science. She is ultimately saved by the heroics of several Jesuits including doubt- and guilt-ridden Father Karras (Jason Miller). As critic Pauline Kael wrote grumpily at the time, it was “the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way....”

The movie made my 10 Best list in 1973 primarily as a horror show, the over-the-top parts made convincing by subtle and intelligent characters and atmosphere. It had the religious impact of a well-told retreat tale.

Blatty’s demon is out of the deep past, a perverted villain of physical debaucheries, four-letter words and bad personal hygiene. He is socially unacceptable. A thriller with minimal religious substance; for the emotionally hardy.

POSSESSED

POSSESSED (Showtime): Thomas Allen, a Jesuit-educated Catholic, recounted the details of a 1949 exorcism in a 1993 book called Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism. It explored many alternative explanations for the events and intended to offer “comprehensive documentation” from many of those involved. In the end, it reflects the Church’s official ambivalence on the subject.

Now a dramatic TV movie based on Allen’s book, Possessed is making the rounds on Showtime, with Timothy Dalton as the lead exorcist. It starts airing on Halloween. Early reports suggest director Steven de Sousa (scriptwriter of Die Hard and other action flicks) leans toward skepticism.

This film offers explanations that range from psychology and fakery to the cultural climate of the period: Cold War, fear of the Bomb, racism, McCarthyism and general paranoia. But it also indulges in a lively final exorcism. Not yet reviewed, but it seems less in pursuit of truth than in the tradition of diabolical entertainment.

AMERICAN BYZANTINE

AMERICAN BYZANTINE (PBS, November) is a one-hour film documenting the design, creation and installation of the massive Universal Call to Holiness marble sculptural relief in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The 38-ton artwork was designed by American sculptor George Carr and carved by a team of 22 artisans in Tuscany. The sculpture now covers the rear wall of the largest Catholic church in the Americas, which is itself still a work in progress after 80 years.

The carving reflects a major theme of the Second Vatican Council in depicting clusters of figures representing a variety of ethnic backgrounds being drawn to the Holy Spirit, which appears in the form of a dove above their heads. The film is produced and narrated by Martin Doblmeier of Journey Films (The Cardinal Suenens Story, Bernardin).

MOYERS ON DYING

MOYERS ON DYING (PBS): This four-part series that aired in September sounds a bit like the ultimate in non-escapist TV. The always somber Bill Moyers on death is not an entirely charming prospect. In many ways, that was the point: Get tough and pay attention to what all the rest of showbiz works so hard to make you forget.

The series (gently and often poetically produced by Elena Mannes) made us aware of the movement afoot to make death less awful, less isolating and impersonal, more the last act of a normal life. It also tried to alert viewers to the benefits of hospice care as well as to encourage thinking about increasingly complex end-of-life ethical problems.

For certain, death as a subject is enormously powerful. The opening program described the last months of several patients in enough detail so we got to know them and be touched by them. (Most affecting was a thoughtful and articulate Kansas pediatrician, whose last hours with his loving wife-caregiver were as moving as any love story in a film or novel.)

This episode also described the work of volunteers at a Buddhist hospice in San Francisco. The interview with eloquent undertaker Thomas Lynch included his image-rich poem about a funeral procession winding through the heart of an ordinary town full of life, reminiscent of the theme of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Lynch also mocked the “send no flowers” trend, contrasting it with the more human, spontaneous outpouring of bouquets at the death of Princess Diana. Send lots of flowers, he urges.

In the disturbing third episode, the issues were physician-assisted suicide and other “death choice” strategies. The focus was again on specific people, starting with two doomed younger patients. One in Louisiana, where he can’t be legally helped to die, wants to live a little longer but dreads missing the “last moment he can swallow” the drugs that will end his life. A woman in Oregon can legally end her own life but is uncertain when to do it—she delays and misses the opportunity.

Plenty of discussion occurs (between doctors and medical students, doctors and patients, patients and relatives). It’s often on the abstract level of bioethics but sometimes nitty-gritty such as when fathers and children ponder if and when suicide is sinful. That discussion is a positive value and more of it should occur, especially well ahead of the time of crisis.

TV endeavors like this are useful but fail because we know we should prepare for death, especially our own, but we don’t want to. Baptist Moyers mostly avoids the specifics of various faiths, but religion lurks everywhere in the series. Like birth, death is holy and forces us to consider eternal questions.


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