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
Top marks for ‘Super 8,’ ‘The Tree of Life’; ‘Garden of Beasts,’ not so much

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Aug. 18, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Review

Some years ago I thoroughly enjoyed Erik Larson’s thrilling non-fiction story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, titled The Devil in the White City. He combined a narrative of the growth of Chicago with the vivid story of the architects designing the buildings of the fair and a non-stop thriller of a serial killer terrorizing the neighborhood near the fair.

His new non-fiction best seller is titled In the Garden of Beasts, published in hardcover at $26 by Crown Books, New York. It is the story of William E. Dodd and his family going to Berlin six months after Hitler has come to power in the summer of 1933. The story centers on the Chicago professor of American history’s journey with his wife and two adult children to the center of the rise of Nazism.

It was joked by some in the State Department that President Roosevelt got confused and appointed a different Dodd from the one he intended to appoint at Ambassador to Germany. A group who disliked Dodd because he wasn’t one of the elite with lots of money to fund the parties in Berlin gave Dodd a rough time the four-and-a-half years he was ambassador.

Dodd’s daughter, Martha, in her 20s, was quite a party animal and had numerous affairs during her time in Berlin. She was close to Rudolph Diels, for a time, head of the Gestapo; a French diplomat; a German flyer; and a Russian diplomat-spy by the name of Boris Winogradov, with whom she actually fell in love.

Martha was very sympathetic to the world of Nazism she saw when she first arrived in Berlin. Gradually the persecution of those opposed to Hitler and including the Jews changed her views. She eventually under the influence of Boris, became enamored of the Soviet system, and was sort of a spy for many years.

As the years go by, her father becomes more and more anti-Nazi, to the consternation of many in the State Department who feel he must be in constant contact with the Nazis, even going to their giant Nuremberg rallies. Dodd more and more is convinced that after the Night of Long Knives, Hitler would not be removed from power and there would be a disastrous war. With isolationism prevalent in the United States and the United States refusing entry of Jews escaping Germany, Dodd was not listened to and dies a few months after Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939.

I am very interested in this period of history, but I can tell you In the Garden of Beasts is not even close to being as interesting and exciting as The Devil in the White City was. It is a rather narrow story of one family facing the events better told of in such a classic as William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Yes, Larson, who lives in Seattle, brings in some new letters and finds, but is the long detail of Martha’s adventures really worth the time? She comes across as a rather spoilt and self-centered person that you have little feeling for.

I would take a pass on this one.

Movie Reviews

I admit to not being the first one in line to see the bang-up special effects-type movie. But J.J. Abrams’s early summer film Super 8 really pulled me into the story and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Now, the film is an homage to Steven Spielberg who also produced the film. Spielberg was Abrams’ film-maker hero in 1979 when young Abrams was the age of the students making a film in Super 8.

The film draws heavily on story-lines from Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

There is a group of six junior high age students in Lillian, Ohio, shooting a film in Super 8 format for a contest. The film is titled The Case. It is important to stay for the credits at the end of the film because after a minute or so half of the screen will be taken by the entire film the students made.

Of the six, the three stand-out students in the story are Charles (Riley Griffiths from Seattle) who plays the obsessive director, Alice Dainard (Ellie Fanning) who is the leading lady in the student film, and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney from Moscow, Idaho) who is the make-up artist.

All six of the young students do a fine job of acting, but Elle Fanning is incredibly good. Young Joel Courtney from Moscow, who did not have a single acting credit visiting L.A., tried out at an open audition and got the main male part. He is very good and evidently still lives in Moscow.

Charles is directing the zombie film at the old railway station in the Ohio town when a freight train approaches rapidly. For production values he has the students shout their lines as the train barrels through. Suddenly a truck is on the tracks and there is a tremendous exploding derailment. The students run for their lives as the super 8 camera falls to the ground and keeps filming the accident as it happens.

Earlier in the film we have learned that Joe Lamb’s mother has recently died in a steel mill accident that Alice Dainard’s Dad (Ron Eldard) feels guilty over because he asked her to replace him that day. Joe’s Dad (Kyle Chandler from the extraordinary television series (Friday Night Lights) does not want his son, Joe, seeing Alice. So the movie has a typical Spielberg note of the relationship of fathers to their young teenage children.

The military moves into the town and more or less takes over as Joe’s Dad, the acting sheriff, tries to figure out what is going on. Dogs disappear and then people disappear and all kinds of crashes take place as the military forces the townspeople out of their town.

There is a creature revealed eventually from outer space that evidently wants to go home.

Super 8 is about growing up, parent-child relationships, and creativity of young movie makers. It is an enjoyable and touching story similar to ones you seen before. It is done by Abrams with seriousness and humor. It is well worth seeing.

Super 8 is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) by the Motion Picture Association of America. There is some swearing, small use of drugs, and movie violence. The Catholic News Service rates the film A-III – for adults.


The Tree of Life, directed by Terrance Malick, who has done only four other films in almost 40 years, won the Palme d’Or, the highest award, at the recent Cannes Film Festival. Evidently at the press showing there were cheers and boos.

Although I very much like a realistic film with a straight-line narrative, which this film is not, I came away from The Tree of Life maybe a bit confused but still deeply impressed. In fact the part about the creation of the universe which is filled with National Geographic-type visuals that sometimes take your breath away struck me as very helpful in praying. The film has strong religious components that for some will be deeply touching and for others may seem way overdone.

There is a basic story of a family in the 1950s growing up in Waco, Texas. To that is added say at least 20 minutes or more of beautiful symbols of creation from light to moving water to volcanoes and storms. In a very real sense the film is more a poem than a short story or a novel.

The Tree of Life early on shows Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and his wife (Jessica Chastain) in great pain in their Frank Lloyd Wright-looking home after a telegraph boy has delivered a telegram in the late ’60s telling them that a 19-year-old son has died. I struggled trying to find out which son had died and how could there been telegraph boys in the late ’60s. It is best not to do this. Much is meant to be more symbolic. Just know it is one of the younger boys and it could be a result of the Vietnam War.

The eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn as an adult and Hunter McCraken as a teen) is the key character. And early on, Jack in his 40s lights a candle and evidently the rest of the film is his reflection on his life growing up and the meaning of life.

So after the creation section, the story follows fairly normally in Waco when Jack is around 13 and I would guess his brothers are 11 and 8. It is an idyllic view of 1950s life with Norman Rockwell overtones, and yet there is segregation and anger and harsh treatment of women.

Mr. O’Brien is the tough disciplinarian symbolizing nature and Mrs. O’Brien is the saintly beautiful symbol of grace. Mr. O’Brien works for a refinery and evidently has developed some new ideas and gotten patents that may explain the beautiful home which we saw early on at a later time period.

There is always tension when father is home, although in his way Mr. O’Brien seems to love his children. Mother always seeks to protect and show compassion to her children. Jack says he wishes to see his Dad dead and is willing to run away. As a weary adult Jack seems to be searching for what is missing in his life.

There are lots of voice-overs where a character speaks over the images on the screen. The dialogue is sparse. The visuals are entrancing.

Brad Pitt is perfect as the father who must discipline. Jessica Chastain is beautiful and a figure of sanctity. Sean Penn has a small part in which he has to look with eyes filled with pain and almost despair. But it is young Jack, played by Hunter McCraken, who is outstanding. He exhibits with tenderness, anger, and rebellion the rites of passage as he grows toward manhood. His brothers, played by Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan, are also excellent.

Maybe it is being of older age, but I was struck by how much the main story brought back memories of growing up in the ’50s, especially memories of mother and father.

You may have questions and moments of wonder after having seen The Tree of Life, but you will have experienced something much deeper than most films you will ever see.

The Tree of Life is rated PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned) by the Motion Picture Association of America. The Catholic News Service rates the film A-II – for adults and teens.

Recently Received

Liturgical Press of Collegeville, Minn., has come out with an impressive monthly prayer book that is over 350 pages. It has opening columns by Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser and Jesuit Father James Martin. There is an opening calendar for the entire month that gives the feast of that day.

The booklet is titled Give Us This Day: Daily Prayer for Today’s Catholic. The price for a year of 12 issues is $39.95, which gives subscribers free access to same content online. The Collegeville order number is 800-858-5450.

Each day has a form of morning and evening prayer. Before each day’s Mass there is a page or so on the saint of the day. If the day does not have a saint scheduled there is a piece on such towering figures as Flannery O’Connor, Brother Roger of Taize, Blaise Pascal, and Dom Helder Camara. After the Mass texts there is a page reflection by people such as Susan Pitchford, UW professor and a Third Order Franciscan from Seattle; Monika K. Hellwig, noted scholar; Bishop Robert F. Morneau; and Evelyn Underhill.

Give Us This Day is a very handy compendium of helps for personal prayer and liturgy. I am so taken with this new publication I have ordered a year’s subscription for myself. This monthly publication is a treasure trove for any parishioner and especially helpful for priests, deacons, Religious, and lay educators. What a gift to the American Church!

(Father Caswell is Inland Register archivist.)

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