Lent Film Review #4: BOYS TOWN

Things got derailed around here, and I forgot to do a review of the movie we watched for our Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party a few weeks ago: The 1938 film Boys Town, the fictionalized account of Fr. Edward Flanagan’s founding of the community for orphaned boys on a bad path.

Here’s the trailer, which includes a lot of the melodrama but doesn’t really convey the charm of the movie:

Spencer Tracy is a very appealing, down-to-earth Fr. Flanagan who genuinely believes there is no such thing as a bad boy. In the opening scene, he ministers to a man on death row, who shouts in anguish that if he had had one friend when he was a boy, he wouldn’t have ended up where he is today. This gives Fr. Flanagan the inspiration to scrounge together money to rent a home in Omaha for a small group of wild street boys so they can turn their lives around.

He gets most of his initial funding from a friend and businessman (and this part is accurate, based on Henry Monsky, who donated $90). The friend is clearly Jewish, but he’s played with some nuance, not a lot of head-clasping and oy-oy-oys, which I appreciated. I can’t remember a lot of explicitly Catholic references in the movie, other than that Fr. Flanagan is a priest and has to get the bishop’s permission to continue the project. In the movie and in real life, they eventually buy land and build an elaborate nondenominational community where hundreds of boys of various faiths can worship (or not worship) as they please. 

I very much liked Fr. Flanagan’s insistence, stated and unstated, that the boys should be treated as children (and not as criminal adults), but also as real people. This is accurate: He was horrified at the juvenile justice system of the time, and thought that boys should not only be cared for, but given a chance to learn how to govern themselves. Boys Town of today offers a much more complex range of services, but the original idea was to make a small community run and and governed largely by the boys themselves.

The movie is somewhat patchy, sometimes hitting a sort of naturalistic stride and just showing how a kind, strong, singleminded man kept on doggedly fighting to make a good thing happen, and sometimes (for most of the second half, really) heading into an amped-up melodrama, especially in the scenes with the seventeen-year-old Mickey Rooney. Rooney plays Whitey, a hard-boiled teen who doesn’t want to be at Boys Town and becomes Fr. Flanagan’s greatest challenge. The scenes where his heart is gradually softened and he transforms from are hammy and histrionic, but also fascinating, because Rooney is so good at this kind of acting.

It’s got lots of drama and also plenty of humor. Some of it is dated slapstick, but some of it was genuinely funny. Everybody loved the scene where Pee Wee, who is something of a community pet, struggles manfully with his conscience and finally returns the piece of candy he earned through deceit regarding a lost toothbrush. It was sweet and funny and well acted. Lots of good child actors in this movie.

So, this is not a profound movie, but it’s engaging and moves right along, and stands on its own as a solidly entertaining story. A perfectly good introduction to Fr. Flanagan, whose cause for sainthood is underway. Fr. Flanagan reportedly liked being portrayed by Spencer Tracy, and why not? There’s also a rumor that the studio erroneously said Tracy would be donating his Oscar to Boy’s Town, to which Tracy responded, “I earned the [bleep] thing; I want it.” (And why not?) So the Academy had a second statuette made up and sent to Boys Town. 

Suitable for all ages, depending on the particular sensitivities of the audience. A man is condemned to death; someone gets shot; a child is hit by a car; lots of people scream and sob while delivering speeches. 

It does include a bit where a boy pranks Whitey by secretly putting him in blackface, much to Whitey’s horror and humiliation; so we had a little talk about what that was about and why it’s not cool. I don’t recall any other racial problems in the movie. There are a mix of black and white boys in the community, and they are portrayed as equals, although all the characters with lines are white.

I was halfway afraid there was going to be some kind of dated scene between Fr. Flanagan and a young boy that would come across as squicky to today’s more vigilant audience, but there wasn’t anything like that. He’s just a strong father figure who likes and understands boys. (Since I mentioned it, there was an incident of sexual assault in the real Boys Town in 2015. The perpetrator was a female supervisor.)

We watched the movie on Amazon Prime for $2.99. Click here to see where else it’s available

Image is screenshot from trailer, above. 

I award Boys Town one and a half ash crosses, because I enjoyed it and the kids barely complained about it being black and white. Half a cross is the soundtrack, which was a mishmash of hymns and “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes,” for some reason.

Lent Film Review #3: SONG OF BERNADETTE (and why it’s so much better than FATIMA)

Last Friday we watched The Song of Bernadette (1943) as film #3 in our Lent Film Party series. You can check out my previous reviews for Fatima and Ushpizin

I’ve avoided Song of Bernadette all my life because I expected a hokey, Sound of Music-style Hollywood spirituality that would actually be bad for my kids to see. But although the movie is clearly a product of the 40’s, it doesn’t feel dated. I actually loved it, and most of the kids thought it was good (if a little long).

Don’t get me wrong: 14-year-old Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) looks like a young starlet, not an asthmatic peasant; and Mary is a luminous statue come to life. But it’s a solid story, the pacing is great, and the dialogue and characters are engaging. It includes a surprising amount of mild but genuinely funny comedy, and it’s shot with gorgeous framing and some sweet work with light and shadow. And it’s allowed to be disturbing, as a movie about an apparition ought to be.

They wisely don’t get very close to Mary, or keep the camera on her long. Instead, they show Bernadette’s brilliant face as Mary speaks, and Jones seems filled with real delight as she listens. I struggled at first with Jones’ anaconda smile, but quickly accepted it as part of the character’s radical simplicity and un-self-awareness. She speaks in a breathy, innocent voice which gets a little tiresome, but only a little — possibly because her character is very simple, and also because the story doesn’t hang only on her character.

And here is where we begin to see the real reasons Bernadette endures, but Fatima, which strove so hard to avoid gooey, religious Hollywood piety, ends up feeling dated (and in fact has a very late 90’s feel, even though it was made in 2020). The makers of Fatima clearly had Song of Bernadette memorized; but Fatima comes across as a stealth evangelization tool, not a sufficiently self-standing story, and when it aims to round itself out with some ambiguity, it ends up shooting itself in the foot. Bernadette, on the other hand, is a kickass story, and they let it speak for itself.

Song of Bernadette is a straightforward if somewhat fictionalized biographical drama. It sketches in a few telling details about the life of the impoverished Soubirous family, the town they live in, and their relationship to the Church, and then zips straight to the day of the first apparition. 

Although the story moves along briskly and Bernadette faces resistance and skepticism as she continues to see the mysterious lady, I didn’t fully feel what was at stake for the characters until the girl, at the lady’s instruction, gets down on her hands and knees. As the crowds look on in revulsion, she scrabbles around in the mud, eating it and washing her face with it. The expressions on the faces of her aunt and mother (ohh, that mother) will be familiar to any parent of a child who is good and beloved but difficult, and too different.

Filled with shame and dismay, the family leads the girl away. She’s gone too far, and it’s too much to defend. But then, long after the crowds have dispersed in disappointment, the water begins to flow. One person, and then several, realize that this is really real. It hits home that something big has happened.

Weirdly, this moment never really comes in the Fatima movie, even in the midst of the sun zooming around the sky. In Bernadette, the miracle is integrated into the story, because the story is solid and carefully crafted. In Fatima, the miracles is used like an ace in the hole, to be brought out triumphantly, trumping everything else — but it’s also bizarrely undercut by the way doubt and skepticism are shoehorned in to story. The structure just isn’t there.

The two movies diverge most tellingly in how they handle doubt. 

One of the many elements that Fatima cribbed directly from Song of Bernadette are the scenes where the secular leaders discuss the growing problem of having a seer in town. In Fatima, the dialogue is basically, “I am a politics man, harumph! I reject this backward religion which will destabilize things. But wait, maybe there’s more to it than you’d think. Who can say? Not me.”

Song of Bernadette shows a far more nuanced and entertaining look into their machinations and motivations.  It’s not high art, but these scenes are a natural part of the story, and are interesting in themselves, without that “insert political tension here” feel. This is due largely to Vincent Price and his runny nose, but the other characters are solidly acted, and function as distinct characters; and someone went to the trouble of writing actual dialogue.

Song of Bernadette gives some space to doubt: Some of the healings might possibly have happened on their own; some of the people who claim to believe it are clearly just hucksters. Much hinges on the fact that Bernadette relays the Lady’s claim that she is the Immaculate Conception, and a backward peasant who frequently misses school couldn’t possibly have independently invented that phrase; but when she’s grilled about whether she heard it before, she says only that she doesn’t remember having heard it. And Bernadette is rather disturbingly hustled off to the convent, which is presented as the right thing to do, but it’s in no way a happy ending for her. In fact, it’s where Bernadette begins to lose her untouchable innocence, and it is where her real suffering, both physical and spiritual, begins.

It is, in other words, not a nice story. Despite the Hollywoodness of it, it’s a strange and discomfiting story, and doesn’t shy away from that. 

Fatima, too, makes a stab at including some conflict and doubt, but it doesn’t arise naturally from the story. After introducing genuine angst and turmoil between mother and daughter, in particular, they resolve it instantaneously in a very Hollywoody turn: The sun dances, Lucia was right, and mother and daughter are reconciled.

This is just cheesy. But what’s really unforgivable is how Fatima attempts to insert a quasi-intellectual ambiguity into the story — not as an integral part of the story, but by setting up but not fleshing out some alleged conflict between faith and reason. Fatima makes much of the physical barrier between the elderly, cloistered Lucia and her secular interrogator; but the conversation they have is stilted and flaccid, and feels extraneous to the story they just showed us in living color. 

In Song of Bernadette, the primary cynic is not a disbeliever, but another nun who envies Bernadette and can’t get over herself. After a life of bitterness and rigidity, she is converted only when it’s revealed that Bernadette was secretly suffering excruciating pain. Although it’s played out ham-fistedly (the sister crouches and shrieks out her thoughts before a crucifix by candlelights), she’s an interesting foil to Bernadette’s simplicity because her conversion doesn’t come about when the facts are proven; it comes when she encounters something that strikes at her heart.

I think this is what Fatima was trying to show with the Old Lucia/Cynical researcher gimmick, but because it’s never integrated into the plot or even the themes of the movie, it succeeds only in undermining the rest of the story. Rather than sincere and honest admissions of doubt, the “what if” elements in Fatima feel less like sincere ambiguity and more like a legal disclaimer meant to cover the movie’s intellectual butt. 

Like Fatima, Song of Bernadette also ends with a quote: BUY WAR BONDS. This hilariously but effectively underscores exactly how solid the movie is. No fancy footwork here. It just is what it is. 

Notably, Song of Bernadette was based on a book by a Jew, and the movie was produced by David O. Selznick, not Davy O’Selznick from County Cork, you know what I mean? And the moral of that story is this: You have to trust your source material, and you have to do the work to put it across. The makers of Bernadette do.

I rate Song of Bernadette . . . one-and-a-half out of five ashes, because it’s hardly penitential at all (thanks to alert reader Magdalena who pointed out that I had my system backwards last time).

Listen, if I’m gonna be confused, everyone’s gonna be confused. 

***
Suitable for all ages. The end scene on her deathbed is fairly intense, and you may want to be at the ready to talk about scenes where the teaching nun and others are harsh with Bernadette. 

We rented it for $3.99 on Amazon Prime. Here is where you can rent this movie

Eve Tushnet, always worth reading, has a neat take that frames Song of Bernadette as a classic horror movie. Tell me what you think!

Lent movie review #2: FATIMA (2020)

Two Fridays ago, we watched the second in our Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party Movie Series: The 2020 movie Fatima. (Last Friday, we watched Song of Bernadette, and I’ll have the review for that up soon!)

Here’s the Fatima trailer.

It was fine. We all thought many parts of it were fine. If you want to introduce someone to the basic story of what happened at Fatima, this movie will do the job. I don’t think it bridges the gap and makes itself a movie of interest for a general, secular audience; but it did try, rather than just assuming the spiritual subject matter would automatically make it a worthwhile movie, as so many Catholic and Christian movies do.

Overall, it had lots of missed opportunities and pointless extras, which made for a frustrating watch.

What I liked about it: It mostly had a good sense of place. I liked getting a better idea of what the town, the Cova, the clothing, and the architecture of the church and houses looked like. I was a little confused about what Lucia’s father was supposed to be growing — wads of grass, apparently? But the parched landscape effectively added to the pinched, anxious feeling of the story.

The casting of the three children was very good. They resemble the actual three children closely enough, and more importantly, they seem like normal kids.  We see the actual children posed stiffly in black and white photos, and we end up thinking of them as Historical Figures, rather than  real people. 

I liked the cheerful, androgynous, Jewish-looking angel, and I liked the character of Mary well enough. It was probably smart to make her less like some kind of supernatural, glowy, oogy-boogy . . . well, apparition, and more of a very beautiful and peaceful and clean woman. It’s really hard to find the line between awesome and hokey, so they erred on the side of making her look human but inexplicable, and it worked. It would have been more effective to show less of her, though. You begin to grow tired of her almost unchanging little default smile. But it was a respectable and respectful rendition of Mary, for sure.

I liked that the parents were clearly torn, and loved their children, but had no idea how to respond to a crazy situation in a reasonable way. The social tension in the town was illustrated fairly well, and there was some good contrast between the political leaders and the Catholic townspeople.

The relationship between Lucia and her mother was compelling and plausible, and made a good foil for the more tender connection she has with her dad. The tension builds, and a few times, the viewer is invited to compare Lucia’s mother with the Holy Mother; but then once the miracle happens, the tension just kind of fizzles out, and the mother, after having tormented and accused her daughter throughout the movie, just smiles at her, and the Lucia  grins back, and I guess they are fine. This is an example of the movie’s tendency to set up something interesting, but then decline to follow through.

All the townspeople turn up in the square to hear the names of the dead and missing, putting tremendous pressure on the children to intercede for specific beloved sons and brothers, including Lucia’s own brother — who is, in real life, actually her cousin. My husband pointed out that, as long as they were being tricksy with the story, they could have done something interesting by interspersing the story with scenes from the brother’s point of view, but they didn’t think of that. 

Instead, they cut in to the story with conversations between an elderly Lucia and a cynical, secular author, cutting back and forth between the story of the apparition and Lucia remembering and defending it.  I guess this framing technique is a Barbara Nicolosi signature move, like the Joker leaving a playing card on a corpse, because they pulled the same trick in There Be Dragons. In both cases, it should have been cut. In Fatima, it added absolutely nothing except some Harvey Keitel. At least he keeps his pants on.

Other odd choices: They show the vision of the pope being shot, which I thought everyone agreed foretold the attempted assassination of John Paul II. But in the vision, you clearly see the pope’s face, and it’s some other dude. The vision of hell was reasonably well done, though. 

My biggest gripe: The writing was l – a – z – y, with not a single memorable line in the whole movie.  The dialogue felt like a placeholder, meant to sketch out what ideas needed to be put across in each scene, with actual dialogue to be filled in later (but they never filled it in).

The dialogue was not only dull, it was thoroughly modern. The mother says to the parish priest, “Thank you for reaching out to me,” and the dad says, “At times our special gifts may lead to trouble,” which, Portuguese accents notwithstanding, convey nothing of the year 1917. There was very little effort to include the kind of small cultural touches that add so much to world-building in a movie. I felt like I was seeing an American 21st century family plunked into wartime Fatima. 

The beginning and the end were brisk, but there was a vast, sloshy midsection that went on forever. 25 minutes could easily have been cut.  We saw maybe half a dozen scenes of Lucia’s mother saying something like, “I know you are lying!” and Lucia saying something like, “No, I am telling the truth!” This grew tedious, and had the unfortunate effect of draining off my sympathy for the characters.

Essentially, they take a strange, thrilling, true story and make it a bit of a slog. One example: In real life, the three little kids were imprisoned in the mayor’s office and threatened with being boiled in oil if they didn’t recant. In the movie, they are interviewed somewhat sternly by a beleaguered mayor who’s doing his best, and then they go, “Aw, never mind” and send them back out to their parents. 
 
I also recall that, in real life, when the sun danced, the ground and everyone there became instantly, miraculously dry. In the movie, they stay wet and muddy, which is much duller than the truth.
 
The final insult was the end, where the screen goes black and a quote from Albert Einstein appears, saying, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” A bizarre choice. The quote seems to imply that miracles are what you make of them; but the whole point of the miracle of the sun was that it was undeniably a literal (and fairly terrifying) supernatural miracle.  Ironically, despite the blunting effect of the quote, the movie effectively portrays a much harder spiritual truth: That God’s ways can be hard and unfathomable, and we don’t know why some fervent prayers are answered and some are not, and why innocent people suffer, and so on. The tacked-on quote was just another self-inflicted wound by a movie that could have been so much better than it was. 
 
We all watched it, including the five-year-old (who fell asleep about an hour in). It’s rated PG-13 I guess because it shows hell, and also horribly wounded soldiers and the pope being shot. It also has some spooky dream sequences. 
 
It occurs to me that I should be applying some kind of ratings to these Lent movie reviews. I guess this one gets three out of five ashes. 
 

Is this too irreverent? I’m so tired, I don’t know anything. 

Anyway, next up: Song of Bernadette.

Double Feature with the Fishers, Episode 3: MASTER AND COMMANDER and APPALOOSA

Episode three of our podcast, Double Feature With the Fishers, is up! Damien and I pour a little drink and talk about MASTER AND COMMANDER and APPALOOSA, two movies about (among other things) male friendship. In this episode, one of the ice cubes escapes and then Damien complains about Marvel movies for a bit, but then we get going. Two great movies, lots to say about friendship, identity, and also, you know, amputations, and shooting. No stretchy red suits at all. 

This episode and all our archives are available to patrons who pledge as little as $1 a month through Patreon. You’ll get an email with the link to the podcast, and my undying thanks for helping keep this website (and our family) afloat! 

If you are a patron and have not been receiving links to the new podcasts, please let me know! 

Hate cancel culture? You should love The Muppet Show’s content warnings

Conservative media is concerned about the Muppets.

Kermit Cancelled? Disney slaps offensive content label on the Muppet Show,” Sunday’s headline on The Daily Wire read. The Daily Mail UK scoffs: “The Muppet Show appears to be the latest victim of political correctness with new warnings over its historic content.” Is Outrage! Snowflake libs are even ruining The Muppet Show! 

They’re upset because when Disney+ re-released The Muppet Show this weekend, sixteen of the episodes came with a content warning reading:

“This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.”

As a recovering Rush Limbaugh Conservative, I understand why people are upset. Libs can’t walk three feet without tripping over something that offends them. Things that just used to be good clean fun are now crimes, and everybody’s a victim.

These are things I used to say and think. Like most pernicious ideas, they’re not entirely untrue. You can find far-left activists who really are ridiculous, who really do get offended over nothing, and who really do long to see themselves as victims — and who really do want to squash joy, crush free speech, and silence anyone who disagrees with them. My kids had an English teacher who refused to teach Moby Dick because it didn’t have any female characters and was therefore sexist. That’s just a small example. There’s a push from much more powerful people to crush things that don’t deserve crushing (sometimes cynically shielding actual offenders in the process). 

But content warnings aren’t an example of this; they’re the remedy for it.

The Daily Wire and others have referred to the addition of content warnings as part of “cancel culture.” It’s literally the opposite: Rather than refusing to broadcast the show, they’re showing it. 

Cancel culture says, “This says or implies something I don’t agree with; therefore, it must be gone.” Content warnings say, “This says or implies something you might not agree with. Here it is anyway; you decide if you want to consume it or not.” This strikes me as manifestly conservative: We report, you decide. And they can’t be accused of insensitivity, because they did warn us! Their butts are covered.

Don’t get me wrong: Disney+ is doing this because broadcasting shows makes more money than not broadcasting them.  But in practice, it’s actually the perfect balance of free speech and personal responsibility. It may be the lifeline we need to drag us out of the quagmire of actual cancel culture, which really does make good things disappear. 

That being said, conservatives have made other objections to the inclusion of content warnings. But I think they’re equally bogus. 

The first is an objection to the very fact that there are warnings at all. This is disingenuous, especially coming from conservatives. 

When my kids want to watch a movie or show I’m not familiar with, and I don’t have the time or desire to watch it with them, what do I do? I look it up. I see if it includes nudity or violence or cussing or themes that may not be appropriate for their age. This is standard practice for responsible parents. Different parents are leery of different things, but there’s nothing new or outrageous about offering a content warning so we can make reasonable decisions. Heck, I remember chortling when a Batman movie warned me it would contain “menace.” I hope so!

It’s a core principle of American conservatism that Hollyweird is trying to pervert our youngsters, and we have the right and the duty as responsible parents to know what kind of media they’re consuming and to make independent choices about that. At least in theory, content warnings are an excellent tool to help us do just that. 

Also, memories are faulty, and standards change. Most adults, especially parents, have had the experience of watching a movie or show we haven’t seen in decades, and being shocked at how — something — it is. How sexist, how violent, how racy, how racist, how crude. There are even memes about this phenomenon: Showing a beloved movie to your kids and then leaping for the remote because OH NO I FORGOT THIS SCENE. I’m old and tired, and happy to get an assist, to avoid this kind of thing. 

The second objection has to do with what kinds of things earn a warning in 2021. And this is where conservatives will have a harder time; but if they’re Christians, they probably shouldn’t.

In theory, warnings are useful to parents, left and right, to have a heads-up about content. In practice, they’re are often a little less helpful. Saying “The following may be offensive to some viewers” is about as useful as saying “The sun may rise.” (I had a kid who found owls offensive, reasons unclear.) 

But the specific warnings on the Muppet Show episodes specify that they will “includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.” In other words, it’s going to include a bit that makes some group of human beings look stupid or crazy or subhuman, for laughs.

I don’t have a list of the specific scenes that earned warnings (Newsweek has a list of the episodes), but I’m guessing the group of human beings are not oligarchs or mean bosses or anyone else who has power and influence. It’s almost certainly groups of people who have less power and less influence: Certain ethnic groups, maybe victims of domestic violence, being treated as if they themselves are jokes.

And this is what is actually at the core of objections against content warnings: Conservatives who are angry about the warnings want to defend punching down. They want to defend the practice of making fun of people who can’t fight back, for the sake of a joke. And they want the practice to go utterly unchallenged, even fleetingly.

This is something I’ve been trying hard to grow out of — or at least to be more consistent about, because I am a Christian. Here’s an example: I once told a funny story that hinged on a Chinese accent, and I got swatted down. I asked why my story was hurtful, when a joke involving a French accent wouldn’t be. And the answer was: Because Chinese accents get treated as evidence of stupidity and backwardness in a way that French accents do not. And that was right. I learned something, and now I’m more careful, because I’m a Christian, and I don’t want to punch down.

Being a parent, and having to think hard about what it will do to a developing young heart to see certain scenes and hear certain phrases on TV, has made me think hard about . . . well, my own heart. I’ve had to change. We’re supposed to change. We’re supposed to take it seriously when we realize we’re wounding someone. At very least, we should think it over, and not dismiss it out of hand as liberal fragility. 

I do understand that, when Disney+ or some other corporation chooses to put a warning on something, they do it inconsistently. They will warn the audience if they’re going to show something that current cultural standards finds offensive, but they don’t bat an eye over something else that’s equally offensive, but not in a popular way. 

My friends, so what? If you know better than Disney+, then good for you. It doesn’t hurt you to see a brief warning. Nobody’s preventing you from watching, and nobody’s making your mind up for you. All they’re doing is saying, “Here’s an idea; take it or leave it.” If your kids see a warning and have questions, then talk to them about what you think, and defend your take, and listen. If you just shut the conversation down and refuse to entertain the possibility that you’re wrong . . . isn’t that  . . . cancel culture? 

 

***

Image by Josh Hallett via Flicker (Creative Commons)

Lent movie review #1: USHPIZIN

We launched this year’s Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party last week with the Israeli movie Ushpizin (2004).

Before I say anything else, I recommend this movie if you are cold. This is one of the sunniest films I have ever seen. There’s nothing flashy about the way the movie is filmed, but you absolutely feel like you’re in the blazing hot streets of old Jerusalem. You could warm your hands by the natural light emanating from the screen. 

It’s also very emotionally warming, and I was of two minds about that.

The basic plot: A married couple, Malli and Moshe, who fairly recently converted or reverted to their strict Orthodox Jewish faith, have no child and no money, which brings them great grief. They can’t pay the rent, and they also have no means to celebrate Sukkoth, the holiday commemorating the Jews’ exodus in the desert. You’re supposed to erect a booth outside your home and eat and sleep in it, and supply it with “four species,” including a citron, some sort of highly cultivated ceremonial citrus fruit.

I didn’t really understand why Moshe and his wife Malli doesn’t have any money (he works at the temple but hasn’t been there enough lately, so they don’t pay him?), and I was a little confused about who it was who was miraculously inspired to help him; but the upshot is that the couple’s prayers are answered immediately and spectacularly.

But there’s a hitch! Along with the bounty come some guests, one of whom knows Moshe from before his conversion. This puts a strain on everyone, and how they respond to the strain just about wrecks everything. 

One thing I loved is the intimate, friendly way the couple prayed to God. The motions and rituals of their faith felt very foreign, but listen to how Moshe, almost out of hope, talks to God as he sits on a park bench:

Malli has a similarly cozy and intimate prayer life, at one point calling God “a sweet guy,” if I remember correctly. 

But the way God responds to their prayer is the thing that left me feeling a trace bit uneasy about the movie. It was difficult to know how hard to try to analyze what was happening here, because I’m so ignorant about the culture depicted. I want to say what I think it meant that the guests cut the costly citron that was supposed to bring a blessing for a baby boy, but I’m not sure I understood enough of what it meant on the literal level to analyze it on a metaphorical level.  

In any case, it’s definitely a story about trusting God in the simplest way possible, and maybe not trying to over-analyze or comprehend all the twists and turns of providence, but accepting the whole will of God as-is, including the miraculous and the mundane. The couple explicitly references Sarah and Abraham, the faith-filled but childless couple, and also more obliquely Job, the suffering but bewildered servant who accepts that he can’t comprehend God’s ways. And they’re also Moshe and Malli, who have been married five years and buy their clothes second hand. 

This is a couple who love each other so dearly and love God so affectionately and trustingly, it’s lovely to see — and excruciating when those relationships are under stress. In their particular story, they want some things very desperately, and when they pray hard enough, God gives it to them. I have not noticed that this is how it works in real life! But this is a fairy tale or maybe a folk tale.

It’s also very much a beginning. The couple is fairly young in their faith and their life together. Maybe God is showering bounty on them to give them a good start, and it seems very likely that this couple will be up to the challenges the rest of their life together will surely bring, when prayers don’t get answered so directly.

There is also some gentle exploration of what it means to belong to a community, and whether or not it can be righteous to violate the norms. Moshe and Malli are willing to be a little transgressive because they think it’s the best way to serve God, but they also very much draw their strength from the mandates of the community, which is portrayed with utter respect even as its flaws are revealed. Interesting stuff. 

It’s also a very funny movie, with a kind of childlike goofiness that many people don’t realize is very typical of Jewish culture. The couple are married in real life (Moshe, played by Shuli Rand, wrote the screenplay, but neither had acted before), and the connection between them is authentic and familiar. Lots of wonderful, very human relationships in the movie, between friends, between people who don’t trust each other, between elders and the people they advise, between people who feel more or less comfortable in this tiny, intense community.      

We watched the movie on Amazon prime but it’s currently streaming on several different platforms for a few dollars [where to watch]. If nothing else, it will cure you of the idea that orthodox Jews, with all their elaborate rituals and whatnot, use ceremony or spiritual formulas to replace a relationship with God. It’s so tender, intimate, in turn agonizing and joyful — and, as I said, sunny.

Suitable for all ages, although it does have subtitles. Lots of smoking, so if you’re a quitter, watch out. 

Up next: Probably Song of Bernadette, which several people have noted supplies more than you’d expect from the Golden Age of Catholic Hollywood. 

Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party, 2021 edition

During Lent this year, our family be doing the same thing we did last year: Going screen-free from 7-9 PM, except on Fridays, when we will come together to watch an edifying, well-made movie, preferably with some spiritual theme. The kids were not crazy about this idea, but they ended up liking some of the movies in spite of themselves, and we had some good conversations even about the ones they didn’t like. 

Our proposed watch list for this year includes some that we didn’t get around to last year, and a few new ideas:

Fátima (2020) I don’t think much of Barbara Nicolosi’s work in general, but Steve Greydanus found this movie an improvement over previous movies about Fatima, and it sounds like the didn’t go all oogy-boogy with special effects. 

 

Ushpizin (2004) My mother was always begging and pleading with everyone to watch this movie, and I never got around to it. It looks really worth while. 
Synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes:

Moshe (Shuli Rand) and Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), an Orthodox Jewish couple in Jerusalem, are childless and without means to celebrate the weeklong holiday of Succoth. After much prayer, they receive unexpected money, and Moshe is told about an abandoned shack where he and Malli can properly deprive themselves and receive guests. However, they are visited by two ex-convicts with an unexpected link to Moshe’s past, and the celebration becomes a series of emotional trials.

 

The Keys To the Kingdom
Synopsis from imdb:

A young priest, Father Chisholm is sent to China to establish a Catholic parish among the non-Christian Chinese. While his boyhood friend, also a priest, flourishes in his calling as a priest in a more Christian area of the world, Father Chisholm struggles. He encounters hostility, isolation, disease, poverty and a variety of set backs which humble him, but make him more determined than ever to succeed. Over the span of many years he gains acceptance and a growing congregation among the Chinese, through his quiet determination, understanding and patience. 

 

 

Calvary Definitely just for the oldest kids.

Silence Also for the oldest kids.

Of Gods and Men. Somehow this completely passed me by when it came out in 2010. Synopsis:

“Eight French Christian monks live in harmony with their Muslim brothers in a monastery perched in the mountains of North Africa in the 1990s. When a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear sweeps though the region. The army offers them protection, but the monks refuse. Should they leave? Despite the growing menace in their midst, they slowly realize that they have no choice but to stay… come what may. This film is loosely based on the life of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, from 1993 until their kidnapping in 1996.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc, maybe?? This one looks pretty bonkers but gorgeous. One kid is taking a film class in high school and the other got a subscription to the Critereon Collection for Christmas, so there has been some Widening Of Horizons lately, and I think a silent movie might be well received. 

Fiddler on the Roof. This one doesn’t uhhh quite fit in with the others, but we haven’t seen it in ages and ages, and nobody’s ever in the mood to start it. I think the older kids remember it as mostly a tragedy, which is certainly is not. I like having a lot of options, so we can choose something that makes sense at the time. 

A Hidden Life (although, three hours, I dunno!)

The Young Messiah 

Paul, Apostle of Christ. Less excited about this one, but it’s supposed to be pretty solid. 

Millions. A bit of stretch. We saw this movie years ago and I remember thinking, “What the hell was that?” But it was interesting, probably worth another watch. Same director who did Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire.

Other possibilities:

Beckett or A Man For All Seasons, but probably not both. I actually bitterly disliked both these movies when I was young, but I should probably give them another viewing as an adult. 

Song of Bernadette I’ve still never seen this movie. I have less and less patience for Hollywood Catholicism, but I’m willing to be talked into it, especially since this list needs more movies that the younger kids can watch.

Well, that should be enough to keep us busy. 

Here’s my reviews for the movies we watched last year:

I Confess

The Robe

The Trouble With Angels

Babette’s Feast

Lilies of the Field

We also watched The Miracle Maker, but I don’t seem to have reviewed this one. We thought it was weird but powerful, and we overall gave a thumbs-up to the portrayal of Jesus. 

(The Passion of the Christ) We didn’t watch this one, but I did write a review of it a few years ago.

 

Movie Night with the Fishers: The podcast returns!

Believe it or not, not our podcast is back!

After a horribly long hiatus, Damien and I have started recording weekly podcasts again. We still begin by pouring a drink, and it’s still politics-free, but we’ve tightened it right up, and now the entire podcast is about movies. Although we have very disparate tastes, we’re willing to watch just about anything together, as long as it’s not boring. And if it is boring, we want to talk about why. 

The episodes we’ve recorded so far are double headers, in which we discuss two movies that are linked in some way. Episode one covers Moonstruck and The Quiet Man, hoo-de-hoo-hoo! Just in time for Valentine’s Day.

The full episode is available to anyone who pledges $1 a month or more through Patreon. I sent the link to patrons earlier today. If you’re a patron and didn’t get the link, please let me know! If you’re not a patron, well, my goodness. It’s so easy and so cheap. 

Why is the podcast just for patrons? 
I wrote out and deleted a long explanation about how awesome I am and how awesome you are for helping me be this awesome, but nobody needs that. Basically, a dollar a month (or more! or more!) goes a long way to helping our family stay afloat and helping me stay independent so I can write what I want, for better or worse. And yes, you are awesome, and have been for a long time. 

 

 

 

What we’re watching, reading, and listening to this week: In which Woody Allen and Insane Clown Posse have redeeming qualities

How’s everybody doing? Okay? Remember the thing about …something something real talk, ladies, you are enough, etc. Don’t be cry. Me encourage you. Okay, here’s what we’ve been watching, reading, and listening to lately. I guess this should be Christmas or Advent stuff, but, it’s not. I put up a bunch of lights, we do candle things, and we’re going to confession, and I’m enough, dammit. 

If there’s a theme to these books, movies, and music, it’s “hey, there’s something to you, after all.” 

WATCHING

Hannah and Her Sisters (Where to watch. We rented it on Amazon Prime for $3.99)

We boycotted Woody Allen movies for a while – not because we thought it would be immoral to watch them, but because, ew. If you’re still in that place, I get it. But after a while I got a hankering to see if the good movies were as good as I remembered (and those are the ones he made before he became an open degenerate, anyway). 

Broadway Danny Rose was hilarious and sweet, and I liked it a lot, but Hannah and Her Sisters is terrific. It kept reminding me of a Tolstoy novel, where he just plunges you right in the midst of the lives of these fully-developed personalities in such a way that you understanding their pasts and their likely futures, and how they relate to each other.

I saw this many years ago and thought it was well crafted, but now, having gotten over two decades of marriage under my belt, I think it is a truly great movie about love. You want there to be good guys and bad guys, and there are, but there’s also regret, and recovery from passing madnesses, and redemption. Fantastic dialogue and acting, absolutely captivating setting and soundtrack, and a happy ending. Don’t get me wrong, it has people behaving very badly, indeed, but it shifts very deftly from wretched nihilism to a sort of tender, hopeful agnosticism that makes human life beautiful. Really kind of a masterpiece. 

Wait, I take it back. That architect is a bad guy.

We’ve also been watching Malcolm In the Middle (where to watch) with the kids ages 11 and up, and it’s still a very funny show, but I guess I didn’t notice the first time around how hard they leaned into the whole “everyone’s laughing, but if this were real, it would actually be abuse” thing, especially as the series went on (we are currently on season 5, which is a very funny season. We just watched the one where Reese joins the army and Hal is under house arrest). I think the target audience is people my age, among whom it is actually very common to have discussions about our childhoods that seemed normal at the time, but in retrospect were actually. . . . yeesh.

READING

Read aloud: The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. The second in The Chronicles of Prydain.

I’m reading this aloud to kids ages 9 and 5, and they are enthralled. This one is more exciting and cohesive than the first. Lots of tests of character. I pause often to ask the kids, “Wow, what would you do in this situation?” and I am never gratified by their answers, but at least I can tell they’re paying attention. 

I won’t mind taking a break from Lloyd Alexander for our next read-aloud, though.He is a good, vivid storyteller, but he can be a bit clunky to read aloud. We started on Prydain when we lost our copy of Wind in the Willows just after Toad’s friend’s stage an intervention about the motorcar. It will be a nice change of pace to get back to Kenneth Grahame’s prose, which is so lushly, lovingly written. 

Benny also got a copy of Time Cat, also by Lloyd Alexander, for her birthday, but she hasn’t started it yet.  A talking, time-traveling cat who goes on adventures with a kid. Seems promising. 

I’m also reading Dragonwings by Lawrence Yep to myself (it’s a children’s book suitable for kids about grade 5 and up). Yep has a good, plain style and doesn’t flinch away from the awful realities of life for Chinese immigrants in California at the turn of the century, so it may not be great for especially sensitive readers. The protagonist is an eight-year-old boy who leaves his mother in China to live with his father, a former master kite-maker who now works in a laundry. It does a nice job of showing how myth makes its way into a family’s understanding of the world, a theme that fascinates me. 

I’ve also been picking up Notes From Underground by Doestoevsky and reading passages at random before bed, which may not be great for my mental health, but I don’t think it’s doing any harm to the book. 

And I ordered a paper copy of Cat Hodge’s Unstable Felicity, which is currently on sale for $8.99, because I will scroll through Facebook and Twitter for three hours straight, but I simply cannot read a book on a screen. Can’t do it. And I do want to read this book. (An audio version is also now available.)

LISTENING TO

Uh, Miracles by Insane Clown Posse

Damien made a reference to “fucking magnets, how do they work?” and I didn’t know what he was talking about, so he showed me this:

Okay, so this is objectively terrible work by some powerfully rotten entertainers, but I kind of love it. My mother would have loved it. Three cheers for the divine spark in every human, that makes even no-talent creeps in stupid face paint want to make a video encouraging people to think about how cool it is that there are mountains and rivers, and that children look like their parents, and there are stars and pelicans and shit. This is not good art, but it is real art, and even Juggalos need real art. Me gusta.

If you’re looking for something you can actually enjoy, you could do worse than the Hannah and Her Sisters soundtrack

How about you? Watching, reading, or listening to anything that’s good – maybe better than you expected? 

 

 

 

The perfect quarantine movie: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME

Here I am in quarantine like a dummy. I have some symptoms that aren’t going away with reasonable treatment, so I’m getting tested for COVID tonight, and I’ll have the results in 48 hours. This is boring for me, but really hard on Damien, who has already been doing all of the driving because my dumb car is in the shop, and now he has to do everything else, too, and sleep on the couch. I sure hope I get a negative. I sure do. 

This note just slid under the door:

*sigh*

Here in NH, school is closed for Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day, which is how you do it if you know you’re not going to change anybody’s mind and you don’t want no trouble. My friend posted this link where you can enter your zip code and it will tell you which native tribes or nations originally lived there. Normally on this day I’d be starting the suppli around now, but I think in the future we may make a stab at cooking some sort of Abenaki-based meal on this day and have our Italian Feast on some other day. Damien and I both spent time in Rome and both love food and cooking, so we have to have a big Italian meal at some point. We’ll see. My current thinking, subject to change because I am human, is that the “Columbus was just 1490’s-style Hitler” stuff is dumb, and I see how it made sense to choose Columbus to celebrate in the 1860’s, when the word on the street was that Italians are barely human, much less real Americans; but that message isn’t urgent in 2020, whereas “don’t you go killing people” is, so it doesn’t make much sense to have a Columbus Day right now. It’s okay to change. And if you’re going to have a day to remind the world that people are real and important, then you really can’t make an argument against Indigenous Peoples Day. But, suppli. 

Anyway, gosh, all I meant to say was: Hey, we watched a really great movie last night, and you should watch it, too. 

DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2010)

[Where to watch]

I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a movie so thoroughly. Damien and I were both streaming it in different rooms, and we kept texting each other things like “meteor hammer!” and “magic deer!” and “spooky pandemonium!” and “WHAT!!!!” 

The story is a bit convoluted and I didn’t completely follow it, but that didn’t detract from the experience. A bunch of people are mysteriously burning up from the inside out, right before the new empress’ coronation, so she brings a celebrated detective out of exile to find out who’s doing it and how. You’re kept guessing the whole time about who’s on whose side, and why, and also, WHAT!!!!

Every single scene is completely gorgeous. The trailer makes it look a little depthless, but the actual movie draws you right in. There is tons of CGI, but it’s done in a style that makes you think fondly of those labor-of-love video games from the late 90’s, or of some completely bonkers amusement park ride where they went all in. 

I was trying to figure out what sets this movie apart from superhero movies that show you incredible worlds and heart-pounding action and insane special effects, and it’s just kinda dull and repellant after a while. Part of the difference is that, in Detective Dee, they also went all in with the stunts and costumes and sets and props, so you felt like you were being given something, rather than tricked into believing something. There’s something very generous about the way it was put together. Also, part of the plot involves sorting out what’s actually supernatural and what is trickery, so maybe that explicit awareness that there’s an important difference between real and fake factored into how the spectacle was presented. 

Anyway, it was witty, silly, exciting as heck, constantly surprising, scary, occasionally moving, and overall an immensely satisfying movie, with gripping characters. The empress is SO INTERESTING, and I’m now mulling over some of the themes of the story, because it wasn’t just all action and spectacle (although you could just sit back and enjoy the action and spectacle, and that’s plenty). One character is unwillingly plucked from a sort of underworld and keeps insisting that HE’S FINE, and doesn’t need to get involved. Another one keeps insisting “I HAVEN’T FAILED” even when… well, you’ll see. And the empress and Dee and the courtesan/assassin/shapeshifter Shangguan Wan’er have several conversations about what is and isn’t allowable or forgivable, when you have higher aims in mind and are trying to set the world right again. A lot of the movie is about the struggle between your personal desires and the greater good. Gosh, I loved Detective Dee. You love to see a hero who isn’t invincible or impenetrable, but who completely understands who he is and what he wants to accomplish in the world. 

As for the suitable audience: It does have subtitles (and a few of the translations are a little goofy, which adds to the charm). It’s violent, and some of the special effects are scary, so maybe ages 9 and up for that, depending on how sensitive they are; and there is a short “they almost had sex” scene, and then a discussion of that scene later. No naughty bits, and it turns out to be important to the plot. Overall less graphic and sleazy than Indiana Jones. There is also a character named “Donkey Wang,” and I was not entirely sure what they meant by that, but it was funny. 

If you are desperate to think about something other than current events, this movie will fix you right up. It truly felt like a gift. The story, or at least the characters, are apparently based loosely on actual history from the Tang dynasty, which just makes it better. AND, there are two others! Detective Dee and the Four Heavenly Kings(2018), and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon(2013). I see a new fandom rising in our house.