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The Meaning of Life
By Sister Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.




TAKE THE LEAD (not rated, PG-13) is based on the story of the man who started the New York City program that was the subject of last year’s popular documentary Mad Hot Ballroom (available on DVD and one of my favorite films of 2005). Over 7,000 elementary school students have participated in this competition, where students also learn self-esteem, communication skills and respect for others.

Dirty Dancing (1987) put ballroom dancing on the pop-culture radar. This film was a moral metaphor for class differences and coming of age in a world that had left Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers far behind. Baz Lurhmann’s quirky Strictly Ballroom (1992) used caricature to reveal that a father and son shared a passion for creative freedom. Shall We Dance, both the Japanese original (1996) and the Hollywood version (2004), used ballroom dancing to frame stories of men having a midlife crisis.

MTV’s Save the Last Dance (2001) integrated racial issues and coming of age with ballet and hip-hop. ABC’s Dancing With the Stars has been hugely popular, as were the Olympic pairs dancing on ice.

Perhaps British psychologist Havelock Ellis explained the attraction of ballroom best when he wrote, “Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts because it is no mere translation or abstraction from life; it is life itself.”

Take the Lead moves the story line to high school students. Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) is a ballroom-dance teacher who witnesses a young man named Rock (Rob Brown of Finding Forrester) destroying a car. Near the car, Dulaine finds an identification badge that belongs to Augustine James (Alfre Woodard), principal of a high school.

Dulaine returns the badge to the principal and offers to teach ballroom dancing to students in detention: One of the students is Rock. Dulaine challenges the kids with the chance to win a city-wide ballroom-dancing contest and they introduce him to hip-hop.

This could have been a much stronger film with better writing. More sequences of the actual ballroom dancing, especially with Banderas, would have helped. We never really care about the characters in the same way that Mad Hot Ballroom made us want to get up and cheer for the kids who won and cry for those who lost.

Yet Take the Lead reinforces what similar films have said: Ballroom dancing is about communication, trust, optimism and relationships with others. And it is good for us. Some problem language.



JOYEUX NOËL (A-2, R): This Oscar-nominated film focuses on a miracle that occurred in 1914 during World War I. After a terrible battle on December 23 that left many dead on both sides, the soldiers retreat to the trenches along the Western Front. The Germans face the French and their Scot allies across a no-man’s-land.

Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), a German soldier, has a reputation for being a renowned tenor (singing by Rolando Villazón). When called to headquarters to sing for the Kaiser’s son, Nikolaus finds Anna (Diane Kruger), a soprano (singing by Natalie Dessay). The next day, they sing for the troops in the trenches.

Nikolaus places a Christmas tree, sent by the Kaiser, in no-man’s-land and sings “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”). Pastor Palmer (Gary Lewis), who has accompanied his fellow Scots to the front, accompanies on the bagpipes. The commanders decide on a Christmas Eve truce that culminates in the burial of the dead, a Christmas prayer service and a soccer match. When their superiors discover their actions, there are serious consequences.

Although director/writer Christian Carion telescopes many events that happened during that period, the story is true. He researched letters, journals and newspaper articles in British and French archives to authenticate the details.

The acting is excellent, convincing and poignant, although the lip synch is off for the singers. Joyeux Noël belongs in that cinematic canon of feature films that comment on the stupidity of generals in The Great War, as did Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981). These films remind us that politicians—not soldiers— make war. Amid tears, we ask about the meaning of the Incarnation in a world in which war and killing have become the normal way to resolve conflict. Some war violence.

TSOTSI (L, R): Near Johannesburg, South Africa, a young man named Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) and his gang kill and rob travelers. Tsotsi is thoroughly cruel and cold, as is Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe). Boston (Mothusi Magano), now a drunk, once studied to be a teacher.

Tsotsi shoots Pumla (Nambitha Mpumlwana), a woman who tries to stop him from taking her car. When he hears a baby crying in the back seat, he realizes he needs help. So he pulls a knife on a beautiful young mother named Miriam (Terry Pheto) and tells her to suckle the child.

As Tsotsi cares for the child, he remembers his own mother dying of AIDS and his homeless childhood in a dangerous place. His inner journey is etched in his facial expressions throughout the film.

Based on the novel by Athol Fugard, this film was written and directed with realism and sensitivity by South African filmmaker Gavin Hood. It takes place in post-apartheid South Africa, still struggling to create a social infrastructure that will provide basic needs and jobs. It tells the story of a young man’s struggle to become a decent human being and do the right thing when being a criminal has worked well enough.

Tsotsi is not a comfortable film. It will evoke much thought and conversation about personal responsibility and respect for the rights of others in a socially disorganized environment and nation. The story is as violent as the ending is redemptive. For the thoughtful viewer in the global village, it is worth the cinematic journey. Graphic violence and language.

MONK (USA, Fridays): When we lost the determined, feisty, intelligent and caring Jessica Fletcher from Maine in Murder, She Wrote (1984-96), who would have thought she’d be replaced by Adrian Monk, a San Francisco detective with an endearing obsessive-compulsive disorder and a little agoraphobia?

Murder, She Wrote continues in syndication but is missed by adoring fans of the older demographic. Fans of the show rightly felt snubbed by network executives who admitted wanting to use the time to reach younger audiences more willing to dispose of their income to advertisers.

Monk stars Tony Shalhoub (Big Night, The Man Who Wasn’t There) as Adrian Monk, a finicky, repressed and germ-hating gumshoe. But this provides his cover for investigative brilliance and crime-solving that surprises crooks and cops alike.

Monk is a man of character with a good heart. With the help of a rather whiny assistant, Natalie (Traylor Howard), the quirky and kind Monk’s idiosyncrasies extend to the rest of the cast, including the police department.

Although it’s hard to tell if this is a comedy, a drama or both, Monk continues to be a fresh spin on an enduring genre that has found its home on cable—too good for the networks to hold onto, I suspect.


BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (O, R): Based on a short story by Annie Proulx and filmed against a rugged, beautiful landscape, this film lacks depth. It focuses on a love affair between two cowboys (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal). The gay theme has offended some audiences. Problem sexual situations, language and violence.

GOD SLEEPS IN RWANDA (A-3, R): This Academy Award-nominated short documentary was filmed, directed and written by two American women (Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman). It tells the stories of five incredibly brave Rwandan women during the genocide of 1994 and describes how they and others are rebuilding Rwanda today, from families to government to roads. Awesome.

MATCH POINT (A-3, R): Physically, director/writer Woody Allen stays out of the picture in this film, starring Scarlett Johansson, which was nominated for numerous awards. But Allen’s existential angst transcends every layer of this gripping, sad drama about utterly selfish human beings who cannot distinguish between bad moral choices and those that are worse. Problem language and theme of adultery.

FREEDOMLAND (L, R): A white mother (Julianne Moore) reports that her son has been kidnapped in a carjacking, which implicates the African-American community. Samuel L. Jackson, as the investigating detective, gives the story heart. But this pseudo-crime thriller suffers from an identity crisis, lost direction and dangling story lines. Problem language and violence.

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

USCCB Movie Review Line: 1-800-311-4222,

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