Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


Media Watch
New books; plus, the 10 best films of 2008

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb, 26, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

Ten Best Movies of 2008

Any selection of the Best Movies of the Year is highly subjective. Also it is based on the movies the reviewer has seen. My bias would be toward well-acted dramas that have a notion of sin, or human failure, and redemption. I am weak on seeing animated features. For example, I did not see Wall-E, which many say is certainly one of the best movies of the year. I also failed to see many of the comic book-type action and adventure films, such as The Dark Knight.

With all the above taken into account, my choices are weak on family or children’s films. The choices I have made would best be seen by older teens and adults.

• My choice for best picture is the small redemptive film The Visitor. Richard Jenkins, a longstanding character actor in his 60s, plays a professor from a Connecticut college whose wife has died recently. The professor goes to an apartment he owns in New York City and finds two undocumented persons living in it. Thus begins a story that at times is romantic, healing and realistic about the immigration issue. Also there is an overarching reality of the power of music in our lives. Jenkins was nominated for an Academy Award this year in the Best Actor category for his role in this film. The Visitor would be excellent for use in a parish with a social justice committee.

Gran Torino is the last film 78-year-old Clint Eastwood plans to act in. Yes, the language of Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, is more than outrageous as he plays a racist old man fighting to stay in his own home in Detroit, surrounded by Asian immigrants. Gran Torino shows the power of getting to know your neighbors, even if they seem so very different. Walt Kowalski makes the confession his wife hoped he would make and becomes a surprising Christ-figure for us all.

• Director Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire shows us the power of film in telling the story of the poorest of the poor of India. The script is fantastic as it weaves the Dickens-like story of three young people growing up in the slums of Mumbai with questions from the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? There is lots of violence in the film, but it certainly ends on a happy love-story note.

Doubt, with its wonderful script by John Patrick Shanley, is a mind-puzzle of a movie that challenges each viewer to take a stand around its main characters, played by Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn. All four of the main actors in the film were nominated for Best Actor or Supporting Actor by the Academy. The small eight-minute role by Viola Davis as the mother of the young African-American boy who may have been sexually abused is unforgettable.

• I must admit I did not want to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It is almost three hours long and has lots of computer-generated special effects. Sure, the story may be a trifle that is given epic treatment, but for me the time went by quickly, and the story, about life and death, touched me. A large clock is placed in the New Orleans Railway Station at the end of World War I. The clockmaker makes it go backwards because he wants all those who died in the War, including his own son, return home. It is at this time that Benjamin Button is born as an old man who grows younger as each day goes by. The love story of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, crossing in time, connects with the viewer.

Frost/Nixon takes what seems at first to be a relatively small event from modern history and makes it come alive as David Frost, played by Michael Sheen, interviews former President Richard Nixon for television in the 1970s. Nixon is played by Frank Langella with humor, gusto, and pride. The script by Peter Morgan is perfect. For Langella it is the role of a lifetime. Frost/Nixon is a memorable experience.

Tell No One, the recent French thriller based on an American mystery novel, is my favorite action film of the year. It did not play in Spokane to my knowledge and it should be out on DVD by now. This film is the story of a good man being accused of murdering his wife eight years before. But now there are computer messages that seem to be from her to her husband. This movie has you sitting on the edge of the seat and you may w ell want to see it again. It avoids the postcard views of Paris and gives us a world that Hitchcock would love to have created.

Milk, with Sean Penn in the title role of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States, is filled with great acting. Sean Penn is nothing less than remarkable in his portrayal. Even though older viewers know how the story ends, the movie recreates powerfully a time that for some may not seem that long ago.

• Melissa Leo, who played a policewoman on NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, acts her heart out in the tough but poignant small independent movie Frozen River. She certainly deserved being nominated in the Best Actress category. Again we have a story about undocumented immigration. This time it is in upper New York State, along the Canadian border. It is a story of two single parents, one Anglo and the other Indian, striving to support and protect their families. For some this film will be hard to watch, but the ending is filled with hope.

• The extraordinary acting of Kristin Scott Thomas is the reason to see the bittersweet French film I’ve Loved You So Long. Thomas plays a woman released from prison after 15 years. She has committed a horrible crime and come to live with her younger sister in Nancy, France, until she can get a job and fend for herself. The film, by Philippe Claudel, is one of those small films that strikes home with emotional power and the possibility of new beginnings.

Book Reviews

John Grogan, the author of the popular bestseller Marley & Me, has a wonderful new memoir out titled The Longest Trip Home. The book is published by William Morrow in hardcover with a list price of $25.95.

With a sense of humor and fond remembrance, Grogan tells the story of growing up in a very Catholic family in the suburbs of Detroit in the 1960s and ’70s. In a loving manner, Grogan tells the story of his hard-core Catholic parents who had tens of statures of the Blessed Virgin throughout their home. For vacations, his folks would take the children on pilgrimages to shrines in Canada, and John well remembers going up flights of stairs on his knees as a sign of religious commitment.

Yes, The Longest Trip Home is a coming-of-age story with all the typical teenage adventures. But it is much more. It is the story of a young man leaving the practice of his Catholic faith, even though he knew how much hurt it would cause his parents. When John finally marries Jenny, his non-Catholic wife, in the Church, his Mom makes him a liverwurst-and-onion sandwich right before the wedding. The result is an odor that his brothers smell it easily four feet away.

Another hilarious scene is when John’s Mom fixes up her bedroom with flowers and statues for the young visiting couple, hoping for an amorous night resulting in grandchildren. Jenny, forced into a situation she does not want, makes her thoughts clear when she says to John, "You will not touch me tonight.”

The years go by and John’s new family’s failure to connect with the Catholic tradition is very painful for his parents. A poignant moment is when the young family with the grandchildren visits John’s folks and the son asks the father to lead the grace before meals.

Grogan tells how hard his folks were on “cafeteria Catholics.” The father describes them this way: “These people pick and choose what they want to believe like they are at the drive-thru window at McDonald’s.” What struck me as surprising was that Grogan said he agreed with his parents, and that is why he had left the Church. He tells us at least he is not a hypocrite. But isn’t this Church a gathering place for sinners and hypocrites who need a loving God in their lives? There is a whole side of the Church that has two ways of looking at war and peace issues. Does the person who believes and acts strongly on the issue of life within the womb also march against capital punishment and war? I think we all try our best to respond to the issues closest to our hearts, and others respond to the issues closest to their hearts. This strikes me as not so much picking and choosing as deciding where to share our talents and time. It is indeed a rare person who can respond with fervor to all the calls of the Catholic tradition. Even Mother Teresa speaks of feeling distant and alone from God for most of 50 years.

The final section of the book tells of John’s reconnecting with his parents as his father’s health begins to deteriorate rather rapidly. This is a beautiful part of the book.

For all of Grogan’s breaking away from his parents, he always presents them in a lovable manner. The end of the book is rather open-ended in terms of John’s own journey of faith. This is a hopeful book about a subject that has been painful to many parents and their grown children.

*****

Through the years I have read all four of Kathleen Norris’s nonfiction works. My favorites are The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Her newest book is Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life. The book is published in hardcover by Riverhead Books of the Penguin Group for a list price of $24.95.

But I must admit, for me, Acedia & me is the most difficult book I have read by Kathleen Norris. I thoroughly enjoyed the section on her marriage with David Dwyer, which includes long sections on his bouts with depression and his eventual death. This part of the book would be a very helpful read for anyone facing sickness or death.

But the study of acedia, the ancient “Noonday Devil” sin of the early monks, feels like a slippery snake that keep slipping through your hands. Pope Gregory the Great even complicated things more by combining acedia with sloth among the seven deadly sins.

Acedia is something like boredom and not wanting to do anything. Its cousin is modern-day depression, but depression is not quite the same. It is something like the “dark night of the soul,” or a destructive kind of grief. It is something akin to sadness or the worried heart.

And yet there is lots of wonderful material to read slowly and pray with. Acedia & me is a book that relates to the ups and downs of our journey with Christ. Norris has a powerful ability to express the human condition with all its warts and fears. So in the end, it becomes a hopeful book that blends Norris’s personal journey with the wisdom of the early women and men who went forth to the desert to find a closeness to God. Kathleen Norris is truly a gift for all of us attempting to walk the Gospel way.

(Father Caswell is Ecumenical Relations Officer and archivist for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.)


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