Movie Review & Reflection: LA LA LAND

Movie Review & Reflection:  LA LA LAND

Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.

Do you have to enjoy Hollywood musicals to enjoy LA LA LAND?  Yes and No.  YES, if you have ever had the urge to break into a song and dance in moment of comfort and joy.   YES, if you enjoy dancing and appreciate it as one of humanity’s greater pleasures.  YES, if you have a trace of nostalgia for that great AN AMERICAN IN PARIS ballet. (I956, MGM, Gene Keely, Leslie Caron; available on Blu Ray and Streaming.)  Director Damien Chazelle and Choreographer Mandy Moore’s (not the actress /singer) song and dance finale (almost finale) is a tribute to that ballet and it’s charming and magical.  But, oh, how I wish they had kept the company dancing in a flowing, ever-enlarging dance spectacle. So.  If you answered YES to all the above: GO!  If you answered “No” because you are the kind of person who interiorizes your moments of joy and/or never add a dance to your step or skip about for the fun of it, or find musicals silly, silly, silly, then stay home.  But before you settle in beside your Christmas / Hanukkah fire, be forewarned: there’s more to LA LA LAND than song and dance.

LA LA LAND focuses on the creative artistry, goals and objectives of two young lovers who, as they fall in love, exemplify the simple joys of love, music and art for their own sake.  These segments are the heart of the film and offer its greatest pleasures (the “almost-finale” notwithstanding). Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, the consummate jazz pianist seeking ART not popularity, and he plays the role well. As always, he’ a photogenic, attractive leading man and, in this film, he even has a dancer’s physique so when he glides aspiring actress Mia (the charming Emma Stone) into the gentle choreography of a starlit summer night, it all seems (almost) natural.  Now don’t expect Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers because Gosling and Stone are not polished professional dancers or singers. But that reality is precisely one of the points this movie makes:  Don’t leave everything to the professionals!    Sing a little, dance a little.  Walk on the “Sunny Side of the Street.”  (Or live in Los Angeles along with everyone else who wants to be Fred and Ginger who never get to sing or dance or act for pay and just keep basking in the sunshine year-round.)

The First Act of LA LA LAND could be tighter.   Gosling and Stone have chemistry, so we would have a lot more fun if the sparks of antagonism, approach/avoidance were ignited more fully at the onset.  (There’s a moment after the opening number where you think the sparks will fly but the script postpones the joy.)  Instead we get a good deal of the clichés of “the struggling artist.”  (The limited National Endowment for the Arts notwithstanding – will Americans ever truly support the ARTS in Education and local communities beyond buying high-priced concert tickets?)  But once Sebastian and Mia’s romance is in bloom, the film enchants and gives us a bit of punch, too, in some very well acted dramatic scenes.  Odd for a musical but it’s these dramatic scenes that help us care about the couple and give us reason to want to care more.  The songs they and others sing are better than serviceable but I found only a couple memorable.  I liked the ballads CITY OF STARS, the emotional and dramatic context of FOOLS WHO DREAM (engaging lyrics) and the rhythmic START A FIRE, the latter enhanced by the performance of John Legend, a most welcomed guest star. The jazz arrangements and orchestrations for all the numbers are excellent.  (Music by Justin Herwitz, Songs by Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul.)

LA LA LAND is a Hollywood Musical more about the ordinary than the glamorous, more about the reality than fantasy of show business. Meanwhile, it kind of insists that we keep romance and music in the picture.  As it is in this picture, may it be in YOUR picture, too.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Now most people would agree that “popular’ isn’t necessarily better (although it can be). BUT how can creative people earn their living when their work does not prove popular, remunerative or classifiable as genius?
  2. Is it a waste of time to attend to things you enjoy (especially singing, dancing, acting/ play-acting) if you are merely good but not spectacular at them?
  3. Can people follow their bliss, carve out a generative, joyful life without having to be on the big screen, the great white way or go viral streaming on the internet? Must there always be an audience for every act of creativity? (Can “ART” be its own reward?)
  4. Our competitive culture practically demands SUCCESS. How do you identify it?  Is it all relative? How important is it to you? Is it the same as recognition (an important human dynamic) or is it recognition-run-amuck?
  5. No one wants to be “left behind.” No one wants to be taken for granted yet society offers a living template of “winners” and “losers.”  Who “wins” and who “loses” in LA LA LAND?  Sebastian or Mia?  Director / Writer Damien Chazelle or YOU as a moviegoer?




Fr. DiLuzio’s Short Movie Reviews: FANTASTIC BEASTS and BIRTH OF A NATION


The best of FANTASTIC BEASTS and WHERE TO FIND THEM occurs in ACT THREE—the last 1/3 of the movie. It’s engaging, exciting and a fine example of the kind of storytelling one would expect from author J.K. Rowling and team.  Unfortunately, the first two acts don’t build the appropriate suspense primarily because the characters and elements that should contribute to the climatic conflict have not been presented well.  They are ambiguous and hint at possibilities rather than clearly foreshadow them.  For my part, one important clue was particularly obscure.  Too bad because the characters are interesting and they are wonderfully portrayed by a fine cast and the movie embraces important themes.  And, yes, there is one more problem:  the supporting characters are more intriguing than the leading character, Newt, played coyly and with charm by Eddie Redmayne but poorly written.  And some of the “Fantastic Beasts” he tries to preserve and protect take a bit getting used to.  Too many look like they stepped out of STAR WARS CANTINA BAND.  I found them off-putting even though they embody an essential moral: we must not judge by appearances.  Furthermore, we spend a lot of time in Act One with one of the cuter critters named Greedy who does provide humor and exasperation but who doesn’t factor much into the balance of the script.  In the end, I enjoyed the film. But, oh, it could have been so much better.


THE BIRTH OF A NATION lost a lot of momentum since its debut in theaters and you may be hard pressed to find it – although it may get a re-release if OSCAR dubs it worthy.  I DO dub it worth your time and consideration.  It’s a well-made in the very best old-fashioned sense of movie-making as it tells the story of Nat Turner, the infamous anti-hero who staged a revolt against the horrors of slavery.  The movie takes a romanticized view of his heroics very much akin to BRAVEHEART.  Because we see slavery’s cruelty first hand, one feels compelled to root for Nat and companions with all the emotional empathy of an unquestioning adolescent:  YES!  Kill all those cruel slave owners AND THEIR wives and children. The music swells triumphantly and “Why Not?”  American and European characters who dealt similarly with their adversaries have been hailed and honored for centuries.  GET those Indians!  Wipe out the evil doers!  Who cares about collateral damage? AND MAN, can my “INNER CHILD” HATE all those people who still have the audacity to want to raise the Confederate Flag!  (How easy it is watching movies like this to indulge my emotions and put my priestly identity aside!)  At the film’s conclusion, there is genuine catharsis and sadness.  For no matter the situation, violence breeds violence and more violence and prefigures more violence to come.  WHY MUST THE WORLD BE THIS WAY?  Is violence the only way to address injustice, cruelty, racism, sadism? The fact that BIRTH OF A NATION leaves you with that question makes it a valuable piece of film-making, wondering what kind of true nobility Nat Turner could have nurtured if he were born into a different era, a different economy (and YES, our current economy still embraces forms of slavery), a different United States?

Disney’s Moana: Know Your Story Movie Review and Theological Reflection by Rev. James M. DiLuzio C.S.P.

Water. The Disney Animation Studio has mastered the look and feel of the ocean—a most difficult animation art.  It’s keep-your-mouth-closed-before-your-jaw-drops brilliant.  And that is fitting, indeed, for water is the source of life and without it, there can no life and no stories. In this mash-up of Ancient Hawaiian Mythology’s Creation Tales, the earth and its fruits are dying.  Centuries ago, the demigod Maui stole the heart of Mother Earth and offered humanity its power.  Interestingly, the consequences of this subjugation have only begun to surface in the here and now—in the time frame of our story.  What happened?

Apparently, humanity abused its power and even the tribe that kept itself apart from “the others,” i.e. “the abusers,” have come to face what the rest of the world faces: reckoning day. Thankfully, for the children in the movie theaters, there are only small signs of nature’s imbalance at the film’s onset (contemporary allusions notwithstanding).  These Hawaiian folks, however, are intuitive enough to know that small signs are indications of larger event to come.  Who will find Maui and convince him to return the heart of the earth to Mother Nature?  What will happen when he or she does?  That is the crux of the drama and it’s a good one.  I don’t know how many people will read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si (“Praise Be (to the Lord) for Creation) with its challenges for us to care for our earthly home and all who live within it, but I imagine far more will see this movie. I hope MOANA keeps the conversation going and inspires more civil action to care for the earth and everything in it.

Fittingly, the Ocean—the original conduit of life in all its forms at earth’s beginning–is a character all its own.  Its animated spirit inspires a young girl Moana (pronounced MWAH-nah) to go where her island people have feared to go.  Although she is heir to the island’s throne, Moana refuses to be “a princess” until she first becomes “a person” — a person concerned about other persons and the world beyond her.   She knows this because she has learned her peoples’ story and that of her family as well—stories that equip her to respond to the call of the waters—a call initiated in her toddlerhood, several years before Moana grew in consciousness, talent and will power.  (Thoughts of Baptism, Mikveh, Confirmation, Bar / Bat Mitzvah, Dedication anyone?)  Moana will journey to Maui and beyond, moving forward on a quest that the adults are unwilling to attempt. Children manifesting a wisdom eschewed by adults is an oft-encountered theme in Disney and innumerable other sources.  I’m sure you can think of a few.

Watching the film, I thought of the innumerable ways the great myths of so many societies overlap in points of intersection that reveal essential truths, no matter the peoples, the culture or setting.  Hopefully, in reading this article, Biblical references like the following already are flowing through your mind:

Genesis 1:28   God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Isaiah 3:14   The Lord enters judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.

Jeremiah 12:10  Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trampled down my portion, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness.

 Jeremiah 31:5  Again, you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. 

Isaiah 11:6  The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. [1]

In the Hawaiian Myth, Moana is the child who will lead. And lead she can, because as among the best of Biblical, Religious, Myth and Folk Tale heroes, Moana is not, “a self-made hero.”[2]   Her ancestors’ history and stories told to her by her grandmother play an essential role in her evolving self-understanding and mission. Because she is initiated into these deeper realities, Moana is ready to live her life, find her purpose and embark on her adventure.  (Do we only go to the movies for “adventure?”  Don’t our spirits long for worthwhile quests and accomplishments in our daily lives?  Don’t we depend on others–past, present and future–to find our way?)

The movies’ emphasis on knowledge of the past compelled me to ask “How many of us who follow Biblical Religions, who have a wealth of stories from Bible and history, the knowledge of our family trees and ancestors at our fingertips, utilize these gifts?  Well, don’t fret.  Most of Moana’s family and friends don’t know or understand their history either.  But Moana does.  Heroes do.  Prompted by her grandmother Moana sets out to fix, to heal, to restore—a universal challenge for each new generation.  You next?

MOANA’s screenplay is credited to Jared Bush (Zootopia) and he’s done a fine job.  But let us be sure to recognize that he was inspired by a small village of collaborators. The movie’s story evolved through the minds of its four directors Ron Clements (Little Mermaid; Aladdin), Don Hall (Big Hero 6) John Musker (Hercules; Princess and the Frog), Chris Williams (Bolt) PLUS three others: Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell.  Who’s the “self-made” man here?  Together they have created an engaging and thought-provoking entertainment in which each major character evidences light and shadow in addressing the complexity in the choices before them.  The songs they sing also identify these inner struggles.  One song lyric states “You can find happiness right where you are” while another emphasizes the drive to go beyond the comfortable: “How Far I’ll Go.”  These drives are not in opposition but part of an essential balance.  We need to appreciate our life as it is AND go beyond what we have and know to grow into mature adults. Hopefully, we never stop growing. There’s a Buddhist saying: “We’re perfect as we are AND all life is change.”

Regarding the film’s music, the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda are exactly what we could expect from the composer/ creator of HAMILTON, THE MUSICAL: rhythmic and joyful with playful lyrics.  Not coincidentally one of the questions MOANA asks its audience is the same question that HAMILTON does “Do you know your story?”

And for cultural authenticity and local color, the film offers songs by Opetaia Foa’I (of the band Te Vaka, specialists in indie /South Pacific music).  Beautiful!

The score by Mark Mancina is refined, well-tuned and effective.  His work conveys excitement and intimate sentiments equally well.

As for the rest: the voice talent fits the characters felicitously and the host of animators have collaborated for a feast for the eyes. In brief, MOANA is well worth your family’s time and treasure spent in a trip to your local theater.

In conclusion, I am thankful that the creators of MOANA are engaging us in the big issues of personhood, climate change, manhood / womanhood among other concepts.  As you leave the multiplex, you may wish to entertain some of these questions the MOANA experience poses should you like to move beyond its entertainment value alone:

  • How well do you know your stories—Biblical, national, familial and personal? Are you willing engage them, learn from them, be humbled by them, gain wisdom through them?  Do you tend to focus more on current trends and fashions and neglect the insights of history?
  • Are you actively engaged in life’s adventures or content to be a consumer?  Have you negotiated a “proper balance?”  Typically, our leisure comprises watching movies (I love movies!) and TV (there are some great TV shows these days) — but how much, how many and to what end?  How may we utilize the gift of entertainment toward the realm of action for a greater good?
  • How may we better honor our seniors, gain from the insights of their experiences?
  • Are we willing to take the risk of blessing other peoples and their faiths, myths and stories and find and cultivate the points of commonality and so experience harmony in diversity?

For more information on MOANA:

[1] All citations from the New Revised Standard Version of THE BIBLE (NRSV)

[2] God is always at work. And heroes are cultivated by others who hand on a belief system, ethics and a culture. For all our “American Independence” there is no such thing as a truly “self-made man” or “self-made woman.”  We are more “inter-dependent” than we like to admit.

Film Review: Florence Foster Jenkins Rev. James M. DiLuzio C.S.P.

The film Florence Jenkins is not a comedy, although it has comedic elements.  It’s the story of a woman filled with romantic ideals and the finances to indulge them.  A passionate philanthropist showering the 1940’s Manhattan classical music scene with gifts and grants, Florence wants to belong, to participate in ways far beyond her means.  Not her monetary means. Her treasuries are overflowing.  No, she longs to belong as a member of the artists’ circle, to be known, to be loved not for her money but as a celebrated operatic soprano.  At last, in her waning years, she hopes to command the attention and praise she never received as a child nor as wife in her first marriage to a philandering yet fortuitously wealthy-now- deceased husband.  Poor, wealthy Ms. Jenkins.  She aspires to become one of the great sopranos in the exacting and starry heights of the opera world without a trace of talent or a wisp of capacity for self-scrutiny.  She is a wealthy version of Mama Rose from the musical fable GYPSY (by the way, was Madame Rose’s talent real or imaginary?)  and, even more so, DON QUIXOTE all rolled into one. And, like, Gypsy Rose Lee’s mom and Cervantes whose presence is everywhere felt throughout his early 17th century novel, Mrs. Foster Jenkins is a real, historical person.  Quite a centerpiece for any movie; quite a role for any actress.  And in this version, the actress is Meryl Streep offering a formidable incarnation of the complex and contradictory nature of dreamers and the tragedy of anyone who loses touch with reality.  Ms. Streep gives an honest, exquisite performance.


The relationship to GYPSY notwithstanding, director Stephen Frears has chosen to emphasize the DON QUIXOTE aspects of the story, focusing on its “illusion version reality” dynamic. He gives the film a sense of balance by attending equally to the two men who support Florence Jenkins as he does to the woman herself.   In that, the screenwriter Nicholas Martin brought his heroine to light in the same way Cervantes conveyed insights into his “knight of the woeful countenance” through the characters that interact with him.  In FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, one of these persons is purposefully overindulgent, the other reluctant but ultimately resigned.  And, as in Don Quixote, others in the fine supporting cast are simply cruel.


Hugh Grant plays Mrs. Jenkins boyfriends and platonic lover St. Clair Bayfield as the willing Sancho Panza with heartbreaking panache and Simon Helberg embodies the pianist / accompanist Cosmé McMoon with a kooky but nuanced performance that truly engages us as he transcends his disgust over Mrs. Jenkins performances and learns to love the woman despite her desperate games of make-believe.  Streep, Grant and Helberg are all excellent.  The sum total of the performances, period design and costumes (wonderful Production Design by Alan MacDonald and Costumes by Consolata Boyle), and overall direction makes this film well worthwhile even though, to be honest, the plot sags in energy from time to time.


In essence, the movie FLORENE FOSTER JENKINS is a love story with edge.  It poses a question that certainly will benefit all who are willing to address it: What is the best relationship between Truth, Beauty and Love?  There is, of course, no one-size-fits all balanced response to such a query, but this movie brings to mind Saint Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians: “So, faith, hope and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”





by Fr. James DiLuzio

It’s a no-brainer to review these two films together.  Each in its own way is a variation on the classic Hans Christian Anderson tale THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES.  Both waltz around an “elephant in the room:” something rotten is taking place and decisions have to be made.  Both films expose those who pretend it is “business-as-usual,” revealing the horror of the sound of silence and both reveal what happens when moral codes are abandoned to the detriment of millions directly and indirectly: disillusionment wreaks havoc with the heartland.

In the case of SPOTLIGHT, Boston Globe reporters (uniformly portrayed with excellence by a fine roster of actors, especially Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams) play the child crying out: “the emperor is wearing no clothes!” Here, we see the drama of investigative reporting as it prepares to expose the horrendous deceit of the Catholic Church hierarchy protecting pedophile / ephebe-ophile priests. They do so with a strong moral righteousness on behalf of the children and teenagers who were abused and those who could or would be.  The irony in a very brief scene as Mark Ruffalo’s reporter sees children singing SILENT NIGHT in a church’s Christmas pageant is heartbreaking. Moreover, SPOTLIGHT reflects the important role journalists play in free societies exposing abuses of power in institutions from Church to State. In that, I think it is superior to the other fine journalist-centered film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976 directed by Alan J. Pakula).

Director Tom McCarthy keeps the pacing at an exciting pulse and he and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer keep the dialogue clear and illuminating.  Furthermore, the tone and style of the movie is not one of grand standing but of insight, sobriety and even humility as it exposes the failures of people in power. Not only is the Church guilty (beyond the hierarchy so were so many parents and clueless parishioners) but Boston’s civic leaders, lawyers and even the reporters’ own paper, the Boston Globe.  There are many meanings to Jesus’ statement “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32) and here is an excellent example of the power of truth when it is, at last, set free, however horribly delayed.  I suggest Bishops involved in the cover- up see this movie annually as part of their Lenten Penance.  But not only our bishops, but all clergy and leaders in every field of church, state, education, medicine –wherever fears of liabilities and the temptation to protect reputations could prevail at the expense of victims and the public good.  Admitting wrongs may be considered shame in social circles but in truth, and in true religion, it is deliverance toward the greater good insuring the cessation of evil and preventing future harm.  SPOTLIGHT makes it very clear how admitting one or two scandals early on (and implementing clear preventative guidelines now in place but only after the Boston Globe’s exposé) would have spared hundreds of victims and put the bishops on the humble path all people of faith should walk.


THE BIG SHORT takes a different point of view exposing (and explaining) the debacle of Wall Street and USA Banks.  The protagonists here also see the truth of what is going on but unlike the whistle-blowers of SPOTLIGHT, they prefer to keep the story to themselves in order to benefit by it.  What seems like a gamble to most is a matter of certainty to them: the financial real estate bubble is ready to pop.  Our heroes (irony intended) position themselves to become millionaires / billionaires by investing in what is a kind of insurance policy: when the mortgages and real estate investments fail, they’ll collect big time!  And there isn’t one character concerned for “the greater good.”  Should any one expose the oncoming avalanche none of our brilliant geek insiders would benefit.  A shred of moral thinking enters into the investors mindset:  some believe they are teaching Wall Street a lesson by using its greed against them, but this amounts to nothing more than a self-serving rationalization.  Many will suffer; a few will strike it rich.

THE BIG SHORT makes for good drama revealing subterfuge at its most manic but because it explores the complexities of the financial world, it also is a contemplative film. Director Adam McKay and his co-screenwriter Charles Randolph inspired fine-tuned performances from another great ensemble cast (Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling were stand-outs for me) and offer seasoned insights into human nature, particularly the fallibilities of materialism and greed.  Ironies abound in this film, too. For one thing, all the focus and concentration required to attend to the script only makes it clear how so much of Wall Street’s shenanigans went undisclosed.  With sadness and cynicism, the film conveys how industry insiders” bypassed moral deliverance and opted for greed.  The rest of us were unaware and/ or didn’t care. And how was it that the government and the media turned a blind eye?  Answers to that question may inspire some scrutiny regarding presidential and congressional candidates this November.


Movie Review: THE REVENANT

Movie Review: THE REVENANT

Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.

The vagaries of nature often wreak havoc in the minds of believers as they try to reconcile the hardships and challenges nature inflicts on the human condition with our insistence on a loving, merciful God. The best possible explanation comes from centuries of theological discernment and debate, but it is a simple one: God honors God’s creation on its own terms: Nature will be as Nature needs to be, i.e., based on the aptitudes and limits of its essence and design. Most every believer acknowledges these days that “Nature” is not God’s moral agent of reward and punishment because ancient biblical understanding was framed in a more primitive mindset.  Nature simply is what it is for God allows the material world to exist within its own laws and limitations.  Occasional interventions notwithstanding.

The same applies to human nature, particularly regarding man’s inhumanity to man.* The suffering we inflict upon one another through God’s gift of free will certainly vindicates God from any blame.  God’s grace may empower and expand the good we chose but the evil we display grounds itself in our freedom to act against conscience and inherent moral codes of the human psyche.  A psyche illumined and informed by the collective (and, for believers, God-inspired) wisdom on display in the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ Beatitudes, teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed and many, many more.

Spiritual reflection is inherent in THE REVENANT.  God is an ever present but silent force in this narrative because of the way director Alejandro G. Iῆarritu’s tells his story.  The film, the script and the scenery all evoke questions about faith, morality, nature and humanity.   The movie is more than just about one person’s survival (or inability to survive—no spoilers here) in part because characters invoke Christianity and in some cases a false understanding of Christianity in key scenes.  There’s an implicit sense throughout the film that not only is the protagonist’s life at stake, but so, too, his soul.  All the characters hang in the balance between good and evil, with many if not all tipping the scale to the dark side as we, the audience, look on and ponder survival of the fittest and so much more.


THE REVENANT is a fascinating cinematic exploration of one man’s attempt to survive the cruel, dark impulses of the human heart and will in the context of all of nature’s menace.  Is it revenge that animates him or something else entirely? The man in the question is Hugh Glass, an historical American figure of the 1820’s western expansion and fur trade, played by Leonardo DiCaprio employing all the tools of the great method acting tradition with aplomb. In a captivating performance, Leonardo reveals the inner struggles of a man confronting fears and prejudices, hate and greed on grand display among the warring French and American fur traders and native American tribes for whom betrayal, scapegoating and murder are often excuses for living.  Furthermore, Hugh has many inner demons of his own, while, at the same time his courage, intelligence and his love and devotion toward his son Hawk and the memory of his martyred wife gain our respect and admiration. In many silent stretches of struggle, victory and defeat, DiCaprio keeps us in suspense and awe.  He deserves his Oscar nomination.

And amidst all the human conflict, the magnificent vistas of Wyoming’s majestic mountains, trees, sparkling rivers and roaring waterfalls alternately cast their spell of beauty, grandeur and indifference just as God seems to do at times.  THE REVENANT (the word means “ghost” or “one that returns after death or a long absence”) is an adventure story turned into theological reflection.  I dare anyone who sees it not to be steeped in deep thought about life, nature and survival—and the choices between fully living and mere existence.  At times the visuals are raw, the tearing of human flesh, the gutting of entrails human and animal—the result of arrow and gunfire, fire and stone.  And much has been written about Hugh’s battle with a mother bear ferociously defending her cubs after his unwitting encroachment.  (Extraordinary computer generated images.) But the whole offers a profundity much greater then these individual parts. The film is slowly paced, contemplative and for that, it stands alone among most modern cinema with the exception of the works of Terence Malik whose visuals also convey spiritual dynamics and questions of God and Nature (TREE OF LIFE).  The crucible of Hugh Glass we see on the screen also serves as a test to viewers’ ability to pay attention to detail, to focus one moment at a time, to surrender the impatience that can occur when accustomed to so many fast paced action adventures.  Good for the soul.

THE REVENANT features stunning cinematography, seamless editing and evidences first-class direction.  Great acting, too, not in any way limited to DiCaprio alone. Antagonist Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald is a perfect foil for Glass and there are compelling performances by Domnhall Gleeson as Captain Andrew Henry (government agent in charge of the trader’s security), Forrest Goodluck as Glass’ son and Arthur RedCloud as a benevolent Native American.  The latter three provide some welcomed moments of compassion and attempts toward a greater good.  The film’s conclusion offers possibilities of transcendence but remains ambiguous. A perfect opportunity to engage in conversation and debate with others about the worlds without and within.


*Fellow feminists be warned: there is only one woman in this film and she is featured briefly in flashbacks and in visions. Appropriately she reinforces a multi-layered theme–a “revenant” inspiring the “revenant” aspects of the title character.

STAR WARS – THE FORCE AWAKENS (includes spoilers)


Echoes of the original STAR WARS–THE NEW HOPE abound in THE FORCE AWAKENS.  For the most part, that’s a good thing.  Continuity with previous characters and themes make watching this movie a bit like a homecoming event.  Indeed, we need generational stories that remind us that the conflicts between good and evil, truth and lies are perennial, that actions have consequences far beyond our life spans and that older generations have much to offer the new.  From the start it is clear that our wonderfully appealing young adult protagonists Rey and Finn are in need of mentoring.  Rey will become the film’s heart and center, a true heroine, but opening scenes reveal her reclusive as if a resigned to minimal existence.  Finn, destined to become the new age Han Solo has fears that like his antecedent drive him to flee at the onset of any conflict. Like Han in his younger days, Finn is bound to “look out for number one,” until an encounter with Rey calls him to accept some adult responsibility in countering the evil forces of the First Order.  When the elder Han Solo appears on the exiled Millennium Falcon (“Chewie, we’re back!”), the young adults begin to get some mentoring.  Han helps them deliver clues to the Republic and Resistance Fighters that pertain to the missing Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts who alone may have a plan to defeat the First Order.   Good story.  Fun film.

As for particulars, Rey is beautifully portrayed by Daisy Ridley.  She will be a fine feminine hero for the new set of films. John Boyega as Finn is up for the challenge of a young man with evolving perceptions and maturity.  Many reviewers have noted the special effects are first-rate and I particularly appreciated John Williams being back for the music soundtrack.  Keep those leitmotifs coming!  All in all, THE FORCE AWAKENS is a good film especially because it keeps the human element front and center amidst the technical wizardry of the galactic battles.  To be a great film, however, I would have urged the screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt and Abrams the director to shorten some of the war sequences and offer a few more scenes focusing on character development.  Why is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) so angry with his father Han Solo?  What brought about the rupture in Han and Leia’s relationship?  We might infer from the earlier films that Leia would be workaholic princess par excellence and Han unable to resist his wanderlust but with “the force” on their side, how did they fail to negotiate their inherent differences that was part of their initial, mutual attraction? And what really forced Luke Skywalker into exile?  The fact that the young people are adrift and their potential mentors are flawed but good intentioned makes for good drama.  But when we only get surface insight to the paradigm, the climactic scene between Han and Kylo Ren falls short of the emotionally gripping mark it should have.   Father-Son conflicts are abundant in the Bible and in Greek myths and folktales.  But for the 21st century, let’s have more than the usual Oedipal dynamics.

I hope I haven’t given too much away, but I imagine at this juncture, everyone reading this has seen the film.  Let us know your responses.  We would love to hear from you.


Fun and Insight with Disney/Pixar’s INSIDE OUT – a movie review and spiritual reflection


Disney/Pixar’s INSIDE OUT is a joyous ride through Psychology 101 fitting for children of all ages.  Well, I’ll qualify that: 8 or older.  I think it is a little too complex for the Pre-School and Kindergarten set, although it is colorful to an eye-popping degree  The heart of the story concerns an 11 year old girl adjusting from a family move from Minnesota to San Francisco.   Encouraged to be the family’s “happy girl,” as an anchor for her parents’ anxieties, Riley has nowhere to go with her feelings of loss of place, friendships, school and those deeper ones evoked as she tries to renegotiate her relationship with her parents and her new surroundings.

Enter the film’s central conceit: Riley’s” Interior Self” is personified by characters representing primal feelings: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear.  Empowered by Riley’s parents and our cultural compulsions to be “Happy, Happy, Happy,” the effervescent Joy works overtime in limiting the impact of the others–all to Riley and her families’ detriment.  Sadness in particular demonstrates through heightened dramatic conflict a truth that Joy tries desperately never to acknowledge:  all feelings need to be acknowledged.  Meanwhile, audiences can enjoy the affirmation of our interior feelings being exposed along with all their associated thoughts and impulses in such a playful, conflicted arena as the human heart and brain.  I give INSIDE OUT an A + for originality, cleverness and success in accomplishing its noble goals.  Indeed, INSIDE OUT is a wonderful movie that will surely evoke laughter and tears most readily in most viewers.

As for the spiritual dimensions of the film, I invite you to consider the many ways psychology and spirituality intersect.  The tremendous benefits of psychology and the advances in the behavioral sciences notwithstanding, there are deep spiritual roots in the value of tears.  After all, the phrase “It’s alright to cry” didn’t have its origin in the 1960’s.   Jesus conveyed this 2,000 years ago in his admonition “Blessed are those who mourn.”  For those who take the scriptures beyond their face value (I hope we all do), it is clear Jesus is highlighting here far more than basic grieving of the death of our loved ones, important though that is.  Building on his Jewish heritage as recorded in the PSALMS, Jesus acknowledges the benefits of lament, complaint and frustration over all kinds of “deaths” – failures, tragedies, disappointments.  His statement makes evident that tears, in fact, are prayers.  Tears also are indications of healthy bodies and healthy relationships—two essential LIFE criteria!

To cry with and for others reflects the reality that we all belong to one race, one humanity.  When we cry with others, we may find gratitude in the fact that we have cultivated relationships of trust and that there are those with whom we can express ourselves freely. When trust brings forth a wellspring of tears, we have a little bit of heaven on earth, a deeper experience of God’s compassion for the human condition through one another.

When we cry alone we are in fact reverencing our bodies and the way God made us; tears shed in solitude invite us to embrace the outright loneliness that is a universal aspect of the human condition.  In the great paradox of being, even experiencing loneliness unites us to everyone on the planet.  To quote an ancient Native American proverb: “Each soul must meet the morning sun, the new sweet earth and the great silence alone.”  Ironically, accepting our aloneness can bring us to a place where we are more humble and more compassionate in the company of others.  Loneliness is not alienation unless we make it so.  Being alone offers opportunity to encounter God Himself/Herself.

However and wherever we find release of our emotions through tears, we increase our ultimate capacity for JOY.  As we and/ or others acknowledge our hurts, fears, angers and all of their composite sadness without judging or dismissing them, Joy is in the offing.   “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of JOY.”  (Psalm 126: 5)  You will experience both watching INSIDE OUT.

To explore the film’s psychological dynamics further, read this excellent article in the NYTIMES SUNDAY REVIEW, July 3, 2015:

Moments in the Woods : A Movie Review and Personal Reflection on INTO THE WOODS

Summary: There are some fine “moments” in the film INTO THE WOODS
Still, the Script suffers because of omissions from the original stage play (Warning: Spoilers!)

I love fairy tales. I savor the stories, ponder the primordial appeal of their situations and conflicts and delight in the ways good often conquers evil. Since childhood I discovered I had a penchant to enter readily into the characters’ emotional dynamics, explore their desires, motivations and consider the results of their actions. Indeed, I eagerly applied their often hard-earned lessons to my life. So you may imagine how delighted I was to encounter in my adulthood Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical INTO THE WOODS, a musical parable presenting a variety of fairy tale characters with intersecting stories and dilemma. I attended the original Broadway production shortly after it opened in 1987 which turned out to be the same year I was experiencing a kind of spiritual renewal that deepened my Catholic faith to the point of considering a vocation as a Catholic priest. In fact I had just entered the Paulist Fathers Novitiate. I was instantly drawn to the questions the musical posed — vital, foundational life questions. I realized how I and others respond to these questions prove to be either life-making or life-breaking (and heart-breaking) for ourselves and others. For me, Christianity, Judaism and other world religions ask similar questions while inviting people to develop integral answers. How will we go about seeking our hearts’ desires? Do we see our individual lives as ours alone or are we part of a bigger story? When we encounter conflicts, tragedies and suffering, will we spend our lives condemning and blaming? Do we run from mistakes and their consequences—our mistakes or others’–or shall we work together to find solutions to the damages of collective histories? I was asking myself questions like these as I discerned whether my enthusiasm for stories and reflecting upon them (with others) could extend to the Gospels as a life-time commitment.

Six years after my ordination as a Catholic priest, I was asked to join the Catholic Campus Ministry for the University of Minnesota at the Saint Lawrence Parish Church and Newman Center. One of the Newman Center’s pastoral goals was to create a more integrated community among parish families, seniors and the students. I seized on the opportunity to produce, direct INTO THE WOODS as one of my projects. I focused on the ways INTO THE WOODS’ plot and themes contributed significantly to conversation about “community,” its challenges, rewards and essential values. The play became a collaborative community effort. The end result of our two months of rehearsals and short run of three performances proved a spirit-filled, poignant and highly meaningful experience for all who participated in it and for all came to see it. Since then, memories of our production and many aspects of the musical itself, continue to engage my mind and imagination. Naturally, I anticipated the film version of INTO THE WOODS with considerable excitement.

I am happy to report there are many moments in the INTO THE WOODS, the Movie, that make it a worthy investment of time and reflection. There are moments that are magical, insightful and engaging. At the same time, I am sorry to relate, the beauty found in many of the film’s individual parts does not coalesce into one, great excellent film. Although good, the movie version of INTO THE WOODS is not a great film in the way THE WIZARD OF OZ or SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS are classic movies.

First, the good news: The performances are practically perfect. Meryl Steep achieves true “perfection” in her portrayal of The Witch. Her expressions, nuanced delivery and insights into a complex character ring true to many of the light and shadow dimensions in all of us. She sings wonderfully, too, especially in the dramatic penultimate number LAST MIDNIGHT! Brava! The Princes played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are first rate in a very polished performance of the AGONY duet; Anna Kendrick’s is more than captivating as Cinderella, Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood fitfully fun and Daniel Huttlestone’s Jack filled with charm. Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife and James Corden as the Baker –the central characters in the drama–are fine and appealing individually but there are not enough scenes in the screenplay to allow them to develop the chemistry needed to convey a deep, marital bond and evoke deeper empathy for them in the final scenes. In other aspects, the film’s orchestrations are lush and beautiful and the art direction is compelling, although I found it too dark at the onset—an example of what I think is one of the film’s most significant shortcomings.

And now, my personal qualms: What happened to all of the lighthearted comedy in the original script? Was it director Rob Marshall’s or screenwriter James Lapine’s decision to delete moments that brought a sense of balance and more nuanced character portrayals to the story? INTO THE WOODS is dark, and far more serious in the second act than the first, but the film moves into the darker elements too quickly and we don’t get to enjoy the characters enough before we see them grappling with what represents some of life’s greatest issues. Indeed, the fact that key songs and scenes of the original first act were deleted truly inhibit the audience from experiencing an appropriate catharsis in the film’s climax. Without the comedy (and, for example, the comedic song OUR LITTLE WORLD for The Witch and Rapunzel as featured in the 2002 Broadway revival) audiences are deprived of experiencing the more positive aspects of the characters, making it more difficult for us to relate to their inner shadows and failings. INTO THE WOODS is most effective when it story highlights its innate contrasts from light to dark in its characters and plot.

Secondly, director Rob Marshall and screenwriter James Lapine (basing the script on his play), erred in not focusing sufficiently on the Baker and His Wife as central characters from the onset. The loss of the stage play’s song MAYBE THEY’RE MAGIC, its reprise and some of its dialogue in the first act needed to have been carried over to the screen to enhance audience identification, and care for, this all too human couple. This segment is so important in my view that I invite you to explore it with me.

You will recall the Baker and his Wife have to undo a curse of childlessness by providing the Witch with various articles, including a cow as white as milk. The couple offers the impoverished Jack and the Beanstalk five beans in exchange for his cow MILKY WHITE. Jack accepts the deal once he is told the beans are magic and that he eventually may be able to buy the cow back. The couple, however, have no certainty that the beans are magic at all or that the cow’s fate will be such as to allow Jack to be reunited with it. For those who only know the film, consider now your responses to the Baker and His Wife, and the film in its totality, if the following were included:
(Note the dialogue prior to the song was kept in the screenplay. (SONG LYRICS IN ITALICS)
BAKER: Magic beans! We’ve no reason to believe they’re magic! Are we to dispel this curse through deceit?
WIFE: No one would have given him more for that creature. We did him a favor. At least they’ll have some food.
BAKER: Five beans!
Later, when the Baker prepares to procure Little Red Riding Hood’s red cape (another ingredient the Witch requires to make a potion to undo the curse of childlessness), he determines whether or not he can justify stealing it in this reprise of MAYBE THEY’RE MAGIC:
The impact of the song and its reprise reveal insights to the characters the film doesn’t provide elsewhere. A tragic omission! The fact the WIFE follows through on her rationalizations in this and subsequent scenes while the Baker does not (he returns the cloak after stealing it), prepares us more fittingly for their ultimate fates at the film’s climax. The movie needed to retain scenes such as these.
Other problems with the film concern additional cuts made to the original script and /or the creators decision not to expand upon it. Were these limitations imposed on director and screenwriter by Disney limiting the film’s budget? Had INTO THE WOODS been financed as fully as Angelina Jolie’s MALEFICENT (enjoyable, overdone, but with a more cathartic climax) might we have discovered a classic film worth returning to again and again? (That was my hope.)
I invite you to join me in speculating about how a fine film might have become a great one. In addition to the Baker and His Wife dimensions already noted:
1. (What if) the Baker and his FATHER’s relationship was highlighted as in the stage play. Father and son relationships are essential in life. Had the film shown more interaction (be father “real” or “ghost,”) the Baker’s character (and James Cordon’s portrayal) would have evoked deeper feelings from the viewer. And we wouldn’t have been deprived of hearing the Baker sing his discernment of his fate in the poignant NO MORE — a sure-fire moment of audience identification with the character as presented on stage.

2. (What if) we could have seen Cinderella at the Ball! Her sung monologue HE’s A VERY NICE PRINCE (effectively delivered by Anna Kendrick) could easily have been modified to make it an “in the moment” reflection as she meets, dances with the Prince and flees.

3. (What if) Little Red Riding Hood’s and Jack and the Beanstalk’s sung soliloquies also were adapted as “in-the-moment” events. Their songs are fine “as is” on the stage where theatrical form and context are more welcoming to asides and soliloquies. Film, however, benefits more from “in the moment” storytelling.

4. (What if) we were able enjoy the Witch in the more light hearted moments afforded her on the stage, especially through the her duet with Rapunzel entitled OUR LITTLE WORLD — a comic and revelatory song conveying of the brighter sides of the Witch and Rapunzel’s relationship. (Exemplifying another one of the story’s points: few, if any, people are all evil and malice.)

5. (What if) All of the verses of NO ONE IS ALONE could have been retained. This is the most beautifully moving song in the show and audiences would have benefitted from hearing it in its entirety. Here’s the missing lyric:


To conclude, I would like to offer ideas I have always had about possible enhancements and outright changes to the original script had the creators pursued other options. Leaving all criticism of the play and film aside, I invite us to INDULGE OUR IMAGINATIONs and explore some beyond “THE WOODS” WHAT IFS?”

a. One reason the Witch is the Witch (mean, ugly, manipulative) is because she lives UNFORGIVEN by her mother over the loss of the beans. WHAT IF, after singing LAST MIDNIGHT, we find the WITCH in the underworld? Two possibilities here: Her mother could have gained some wisdom in the world of the dead and forgiven her daughter. Or, instead, the Mother remains unremitting but the Witch learns that she can forgive herself. Then when the Witch’s ghost (or the Witch-in-the-flesh) returns to sing CHILDREN WILL LISTEN, the audience would have seen her transformation. That experience could contribute significantly to the song’s beauty and wisdom.

b. What if the Little Red Riding Hood’s dialogue with Cinderella prior to the song NO ONE IS ALONE shaped the play’s climax? I quote the original dialogue from the play and used in the film:
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD: I think my granny and my mother would be upset with me.
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD: They said to always make them proud. And here I am about to kill somebody.
CINDERELLA: Not somebody. A giant who has been doing harm.
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD: But the giant’s a person. Aren’t we to show forgiveness? Mother would be very unhappy with these circumstances.
The song NO ONE IS ALONE invites us to evolve our own responses to Little Red Riding Hood’s question “Aren’t we to show forgiveness?” WHAT IF the collective decision of the characters was not to kill the GIANT’s WIFE but assuage her wrath and make amends for her husband’s death, even though, their experience proved (as the Witch insisted) “you can’t reason with a Giant.”
As is, the original script conveys that, at least at times, violence inevitably must be used to overcome violence – a feature evident in many fairy tales and in almost all action adventures and human history. What would we do without the great battle scenes in films and in our collective national identities? In many ways “the strong warrior archetype” has to win out. But many great works of literature, art and the Bible itself probe alternative responses to violence —-alternatives that offer greater benefits toward human advancement. Yes, the Bible is filled with examples and teachings that justify violence, war and encourage condemnation and shunning others in both Old and New Testaments. Yet much modern scholarship invites us to see these as opportunities to explore the consequences and results of these orientations and actions rather than follow them as directives. Furthermore, in its totality, Scripture does evidence a gradual, in-depth understanding of God that is far more benevolent in its totality than in its individual parts. We are invited to see that any particular biblical passage represents but a stage in the people’s faith development, each stage evidencing very human realities in our wrestling with God, morality and free will.* What appeal would INTO THE WOODS have if it had not defaulted on the more traditional “kill the Giant” fairy tale ending? You decide!
c. If we would find the WITCH forgiven or having forgiven herself, she could have returned to shrink the Giant down to human proportions. What then? The characters might be forced to reconcile and collaborate on the future rather than grieve the past. Like Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT, TWELFTH NIGHT and MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT’s DREAM, the story would conclude with music and dancing as those plays are often staged with our fairy tale characters celebrating a more universal, common humanity. As it is, the remaining character of INTO THE WOODS achieve that, too, but with the weight of having killed the GIANT’S WIFE. Of course, if we altered the script to offer that kind of “happy ending” in which violence is averted, would the result prevent audiences from entering into the quandary of violence, self-defense and benevolence on their own? Is that a greater value? And, of course, there is the reality there will always be evil in the world. Giants and witches and terrorists and hate and revenge in human hearts will forever plague our planet. In the end, for all my musings, perhaps it is good that we leave INTO THE WOODS as it was on stage and as it is on film. We all have to write our own stories anyway.

*See my summary of STAGES OF FAITH DEVELOPMENT in the Bible and Our lives at

Movie Reviews with Spiritual Concepts # 1: THE SKELETON TWINS

Movie Reviews with Spiritual Concepts Volume 1

September 13, 2014:  THE SKELETON TWINS

Franciscan priest and popular spiritual guide Richard Rohr often uses a phrase “Unless we transcend our pain, we will continue to transmit it.”  To “transcend our pain” is to allow God’s unconditional love to compensate for the conditional love we experience from ourselves and others.  If we don’t, the “transmission of pain” can be apportioned to others and to ourselves equally.  The masochistic dimensions of this truth are displayed in all of their grandeur in SKELETON TWINS, the story of adult fraternal twins Milo and Maggie perpetuating childhood fears and unhealthy choices instilled in them through seriously warped parenting and other forms of abuse.  Existential pain runs amuck in this film which begins with each twin’s respective suicide attempt and continues with the shadow of despair evident in the characters’ behaviors and in the dark gray lighting in much of the film.  Yet, this sad story offers sustained appeal and intrigue through the excellent artistry and chemistry shared by the two leads Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as Milo and Maggie whose acting skills are comparable to their comedic talents evident in their years goofing it up on Saturday Night Live.  Furthermore, the script itself provides periodic and most welcomed comic relief without which we would sink into something akin to Ingmar Bergman induced despair.

There is truth in the concept that as adults we continue to work out our childhood traumas, doomed to recreate the patterns of the past until we address them head-on.  Indeed, childhood responses to life, love and their challenges continue in perpetuity until the day we decide to re-orient ourselves to the realities of the present and realize that before us is a panorama of alternate ways to interpret our life situations and the choices available to us.  And although life’s situations will often continue to evoke those same old childhood feelings, we liberate ourselves with the knowledge that with the help of God and others, we can work through them. THE SKELETON TWINS explores how the deep bonds of sibling love (in this case fraternal twins) offers the possibility for psycho-spiritual health, but this brother and sister suspend pursuit of these possibilities long into their adulthood and throughout the course of the film.

The film’s director, Craig Johnson, evidences his artistry by cultivating sympathy for Milo and Maggie with moments of recognition that affirm the ways childhood hurts and longings echo through our adulthoods.  As Milo and Maggie respectively search for pain relief, viewers can identify readily with this ongoing challenge.  True to today’s sensibilities, the wounded characters seek sexual fulfillment but not without attempts for genuine connection with others on deeper levels.  For her part, Maggie’s marriage is a study in opposing dynamics, the cohabitation of cynicism and hope, the latter incarnated at times to comical extremes by her husband, Lance, played convincingly by Luke Wilson.  The contrast culminates in heartbreaking scenes up to and including the film’s climax.  What makes love fulfilling or so sadly unfulfilling for this couple?  Is it their respective pasts (although Lance’s is never explored) or their basic frailties?  Or is it their lack of virtue or genuine inability to cultivate virtue in one another? Milo’s quest is even more pain-wracked.  He longs to regain a lost love that from the onset was fraught with dishonesty and manipulation. While the script makes us fully aware of the pain that motivates his search it could have served us better by exploring the multi-facet dimensions of such an unhealthy bond.

THE SKELETON TWIN is an artful film, consistent in its plot, character development and imagery.  The autumn setting coupled with the anticipation and experience of Halloween support the overriding affect of the twins’ macabre childhood and their respective adult dances-with-death.  “Faith” is never one of the character’s conscious pursuits, nor is it ever named as one of their options, but the ark of the film still resonates with echoes of Saint Augustine’s oft-quoted statement ““Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee”

Are Milo and Maggie capable of naming their truths without continually fleeing in fear or wallowing in life’s absurdities?  Will they find peace (if not a conscious contact with God) through one another?  Although it does in part, the film won’t answer these questions for you fully or even, for many, in a satisfactory way.  Still, if you enjoy watching and/or are intrigued by characters searching for meaning and meaningful relationship in a story more serious than comic, more dark than light, with excellent acting, this film is for you.

Other reviews of THE SKELETON TWINS:,,20483133_20843565,00.html

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