Wednesday, December 31, 2008
We saw three new movies during the week: "Valkyrie," "The Tale of Despereaux," and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
"Valkyrie," which we saw Christmas night, falls short as a "historical thriller." Christy Lemire, the Associated Press movie critic, correctly asserted in her review that Tom Cruise was the film's "weakest link." Cruise just doesn't have the emotional range to pull off the part of would-be Hitler assassin Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of the July 20, 1944, plot.
"The Tales of Despereaux" is a good computer-animated flick with all the right ingredients -- a kingdom, a castle, a princess, lots of soup and assorted rats and mice. I took my four-year-old nephew to see it the day after Christmas. I can report that he paid fairly close attention during the action sequences but was less interested in the development of the characters and the plot. And, the notable voices of Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson and Matthew Broderick didn't faze him in the least.
I also would recommend "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which was based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I think it may be most enjoyed by those who appreciate "semi-fantasy" fare on par with "Forrest Gump." I enjoyed the unique characters and the "aging in reverse" plot device.
I should note, however, that the the old high school buddy with whom I who saw "Benjamin Button" was not impressed -- and downright annoyed by the Hurricane Katrina story arc and the performances of stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.
When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
This tune was popularized in 1967 by Steve Wonder. Brad's rendition, however, is closer in style to that of Jack Johnson.
Here's another great version:
From Luke Chapter 2, the Gospel of the Mass at Midnight:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
The image above is "L'Adoration des Bergers" by Georges de La Tour (1593 - 1652).
Here is a tune celebrating the Incarnation courtesy of Tracy Chapman:
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
This was the debut of Christmas standard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas":
Here is another beautiful version of the song by Coldplay:
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Here, compliments of The Anchoress, is another beautiful version in the ancient language of the Church of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel":
Monday, December 22, 2008
Based on the book "Q & A" by Vikas Swarup, the film follows the struggle-filled life of a poor young man from Mumbai, India, who becomes a contestant on the Indian version of the television game show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?".
The story is creatively told through flashbacks between each of the game show questions.
As of this writing, "Slumdog Millionaire" has a 93 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which is well-deserved. I may have been most impressed by the ability of the movie's creators to show the living conditions of lower-caste India while still managing to entertain. "Slumdog Millionaire" is political without being political. And, oh yeah, there's a love story.
In her New York Times review, Manohla Dargis puts it well:
"By all rights the texture of Jamal’s life should have been brutally coarsened by tragedy and poverty by the time he makes a grab for the television jackpot. But because “Slumdog Millionaire” is self-consciously (perhaps commercially) framed as a contemporary fairy tale cum love story, or because Mr. Boyle leans toward the sanguine, this proves to be one of the most upbeat stories about living in hell imaginable. It’s a life that begins in a vast, vibrant, sun-soaked, jampacked ghetto, a kaleidoscopic city of flimsy shacks and struggling humanity and takes an abrupt, cruel turn ... "
Cyd Zeigler liked this one, too. He concludes, "If you like a moving story that highlights the fortitude of the human spirit, you must see this movie."
The USCCB movie critic agrees: "As the portrait of a man who encounters evil in many forms yet remains fundamentally innocent, and who gains wisdom from all he endures, "Slumdog Millionaire" is an exhilarating celebration of humane values."
And, Christian: "The movie literally makes you cry and cheer. It's painful and brilliant."
While the lack of any known American actors in this film's cast may somewhat hurt its chances, I think "Slumdog Millionaire" should be a strong contender for the Oscar for best film of 2008.
It's certainly on my list of favorites.
The title in this antiphon is sometimes translated "O King of the Gentiles" or, in Latin, "O Rex Gentium":
The 2008 World Youth Day theme song echoes this antiphon.
It begins "Every nation, every tribe, come together to worship you ... ":
Hat-tip: Googling God
Sunday, December 21, 2008
In this context, "dayspring" is sometimes translated "morning star" or "rising dawn."
In Latin, the antiphon begins "O Oriens":
Here is another good video for invoking Christ as "Light" (music begins at 2:14):
From Luke Chapter 1:
The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
In his homily today, Deacon Greg states that the Annunciation "is wildly, defiantly countercultural. It is rebellious. It is a challenge that is offered – and, to our amazement, accepted."
Saturday, December 20, 2008
In Latin, the prayer begins "O Clavis David":
Friday, December 19, 2008
Or, in Latin, "O Radix Jesse":
Here it is as chanted by English Dominicans (with recitation of the Magnificat):
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Or, in Latin:
And, in the best ecumenical spirit, here's another song with the title "Adonai":
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
In Latin, "wisdom" is "sapientia":
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Eight years ago, a Senate seat from the Banana State was won by the wife of a sitting president of the republic. That wife had never before resided in Banana State, but she bought a house there, campaigned with the aura and entourage accorded to a presidential spouse, and with one leap, winning her first elected office ever, she became a senator.
Riding a national political machine to re-election for a second term, that former first lady swiftly turned her Senate seat into a springboard for her own campaign for the presidency. She lost, but took a job in the new administration, leaving the governor of Banana State to appoint a replacement senator.
That governor was himself a replacement, due to the resignation of the elected governor, a crusading moralist caught in a prostitution scandal. As the replacement governor prepared to name a replacement senator, a former president’s daughter declared her interest in the Senate seat — which one of her uncles had won some 44 years earlier, and was using as a springboard for his own presidential run, after serving as attorney-general in his brother’s presidential administration. This former first daughter had recently worked on the campaign of the President-elect — an experience that awakened in her an appetite for politics – but she had reached the age of 51 with no direct experience of her own in public office.
Nonetheless, another of her uncles, also a senator, was ready to endorse her for this leap to the Senate. So was the mayor of Big Plum (the biggest city in Banana State), who on his own turf had just succeeded in scrapping a two-term limit so he could run for a third term — which he justified as a way of offering people a broader choice (namely, himself).
The photo above is credited to Chitose Suzuki/AP Wide World.
"Doubt" introduces us to two Sisters of Charity of New York who work at a parish school in what looks like an predominantly Irish-American neighborhood in the Bronx. One sister is the school's hard-nosed principal (Meryl Streep) while the other is a kind young teacher (Amy Adams).
The time is late 1964. It's an unsettled time for American Catholics -- a year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and a year before the implementation of liturgical changes prompted by the Second Vatican Council.
Crisis comes when the sisters suspect a young priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of abusing the school's first Black student. The sisters confront the priest, who vehemently denies the allegations.
As multiple reviewers have correctly asserted, Meryl Streep dominates "Doubt." Hoffman and Adams turn in good performances but are eclipsed by Streep's powerful rendering of Sr. Aloysius. Streep's work here is reminiscent of her superb multi-character turn in the HBO version of "Angels in America."
I think Shanley, who also directed "Doubt," does an adequate job of exploring the complex layers that can surround such allegations of abuse. There is one particularly memorable scene in which Sr. Aloysius presents her concerns to the student's mother (Viola Davis). The mother's response shocks both the nun and the audience.
But, I also can't help wondering what "Doubt" would have looked like if Shanley (whose only previous film directing credit is "Joe Versus the Volcano") had left this adaptation in the hands of another director. In many ways, the film did still have the feeling of a play with characters in somewhat static settings (not that there's anything inherently wrong with that).
For a more in-depth review of "Doubt," check out this one by Michael V. Tueth, S.J., at America.
As of this writing, "Doubt" has a 71 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I'd say that's low.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn in the title role, "Milk" chronicles the last eight years in the life of slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. He is said to be the first openly gay man elected to a major public office in the United States.
As someone who ran several times for the same public office, I think I may have been most drawn to "Milk" for its depiction of Harvey Milk's multiple attempts to get elected -- and the interesting campaign team he assembled around him.
Political nerds everywhere will appreciate that it was the drawing of a favorable electoral district that finally got Milk into office -- as well as some major image adjustments during his transformation from community activist to serious candidate.
"Milk" is deservedly receiving a lot of attention this awards season. Penn's performance certainly could be called one of the best turned in this year by a male lead. (I've been a fan of Penn's ever since "Dead Man Walking.")
I should note that "Milk" avoided the USCCB's "O" rating, receiving an "L" for "limited adult audience." The reviewer called it a "solid biographical drama" and adding, "Director Gus Van Sant brings an almost cinema verite style to the docudrama ... "
Brett McCracken of Christianity Today also gave "Milk" a fairly positive nod.
McCracken concluded, "... 'Milk' achieves what it sets out to do, telling an inspiring tale of one man's quest to legitimize his identity, to give hope to his community. I'm not sure how well it'll play outside of big cities, or if it will sway any opinions on hot-button political issues, but it gives a valiant, empathetic go of it."
As of this writing, "Milk" has a 93 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
A Concord Pastor has a great homily for this Sunday. And, Deacon Greg is reminding us to be joyful despite the country's economic woes.
Mike, too, has a reflection for this important Sunday.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
I'm using it again because of a personal connection. "Silver Bells" was composed in 1951 by the songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Livingston grew up in my hometown of McDonald, PA.
Friday, December 12, 2008
But, this morning, the day took on a new significance with the death of Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., at the age of 90.
The cardinal, one of America’s great theologians, died at Murray-Weigel Hall on the campus of Fordham University in the Bronx, where he was the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society. The scion of a prominent U.S. political family (Dulles International Airport is named for his father), he received the rarest of Catholic honors – he was named a cardinal without having first been a bishop or archbishop.
Fr. Jim Martin, S.J., has a lovely reflection on some time he spent with Cardinal Dulles. Mike has a good story, too.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Today is the anniversary of two events.
Sixty years ago today on December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR was "the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled." (The U.N. has a special Website for the anniversary.)
Forty years ago today on December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton died. Merton, known as Father Louis, O.C.S.O. at the Abby of Gethsemani in Kentucky, was one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th Century. The coincidence is interesting. I am sure that Merton did think a great deal about human rights. He lived, after all, during the most active years of the civil rights movement.
But, in addition to human rights, Merton was very concerned about the human condition itself. He struggled mightily with the question of what is the best way to spend a human life (in solitude? in action?) -- and how we are to be in right relationship with God. This passage in Merton's 1961 book "New Seeds of Contemplation" illustrates a bit of this thinking:
The secret of interior peace is detachment. Recollection is impossible for the man who is dominated by all the confused and changing desires of his own will. And even if those desires reach out for the good things of the interior life, for recollection, for peace, for the pleasures of prayer, if they are no more than the natural and selfish desires they will make recollection difficult and even impossible. You will never be able to have interior peace and recollection unless you are detached even from the desire of peace and recollection. You will never be able to pray perfectly until you are detached from the pleasures of prayer. If you give up all these desires and seek one thing only, God's will, he will grant you recollection and peace in the middle of labor and conflict and trial.Deacon Greg and Rocco and The Anchoress and NCR and even the Huffington Post also remembered the Merton anniversary. Busted Halo has two pieces to mark the day: an essay by Fr. Jim Martin, S.J., and an interview with the director of a new documentary on the Trappist. Here is a clip from the documentary:
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
As a political junkie and a little bit of a history buff, I enjoyed the film a great deal. But, even those without an interest in politics or history likely will appreciate "Frost/Nixon" for its tension-laden scenes and sympathetic characters.
A superb Frank Langella portrays President Nixon in this film based on the play of the same name by Peter Morgan. Morgan, Langella and director Ron Howard bring us a Nixon who is complex and fascinating.
Michael Sheen, who well played Tony Blair in "The Queen" (also written by Peter Morgan), plays a young David Frost. As portrayed in the film, Sir David was not nearly as erudite as we think of him today. He is depicted here as the Ryan Seacrest of the '70s.
Langella and Sheen both likely deserve to be nominated for Academy Awards for their work. Both "Best Actor" nods, I'd say, as they probably had equal screen time.
"Frost/Nixon" has left me with a desire to watch the original interviews. I also want to discover which parts of the film were not historically accurate.
As of this writing, "Frost/Nixon" has a 92 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Manohla liked this one, too, calling it a "theatrical smackdown." This line from her NYT review was on-target: "Stories of lost crowns lend themselves to drama, but not necessarily audience-pleasing entertainments, which may explain why “Frost/Nixon” registers as such a soothing, agreeably amusing experience, more palliative than purgative."
Monday, December 08, 2008
Good things come to those who wait.
Saturday evening, along with a few hundred other members of the 'burgh diaspora, I had the opportunity to see The Clarks live at the Highline Ballroom on West 16th Street here in NYC. It was a good show with some old and new tunes.
One standout was the band's cover of The Beatles' song "Dear Prudence." Here is what it sounded like at another show:
"Born Too Late" -- another favorite:
A young NY/NJ band called Kill the Alarm opened for The Clarks at this show.
Sunday, December 07, 2008
Tooker, a native New Yorker (born 1920) who lives in Vermont, is a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts. He is noted, at least in part, for having worked exclusively with egg tempera paint. Tooker's works addressed many of the social questions of the second half of the 20th century.
In an article on the exhibit at America, Karen Sue Smith states, "Deeply spiritual and therefore attuned to social injustice and destructive societal trends, Tooker painted his most provocative works as protests against racism, alienation, government surveillance of citizens and homophobia."
Some of the works in the exhibit included:
Government Bureau, 1956
Father and Child, 2000
Embrace of Peace, 1986 (The museum's description of this painting noted that it at least partly reflects the "kiss of peace" during the Mass prior to Communion. Tooker became a Catholic in 1976.)
After completing our tour of the National Academy Museum, we walked south on Fifth Avenue to The Frick Collection at 70th Street. I don't think I had ever been inside it before. The number of major works in the collection was overwhelming. Naturally, as I toured the galleries, I kept in mind that the collection's founder was a son of Western Pennsylvania -- and that his great fortune stemmed from the region's Industrial-era coke and steel plants.
The Gospel at Mass, from the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, speaks of the ministry and message of John the Baptist.
From Mark Chapter 1:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. And this is what he proclaimed:
“One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Deacon Greg has an excellent homily on this Gospel.
In regard to John the Baptist, he notes, "... he doesn’t necessarily appear when or how we expect him to. This preacher isn’t Joel Osteen in a silk suit and an air-conditioned arena. John the Baptist is rough and wild and frightening, yelling in the desert."
Saturday, December 06, 2008
He threw down this gauntlet Friday on NPR in a spot titled "More Virgin Mary, Less Virgin Islands." One passage:
But I enjoy the photos more when they're inside the card, not the card itself. Because more and more, even devout Christians have been replacing Jesus, Mary and Joseph with themselves. Doesn't it strike you as weird to set aside the Holy Family in favor of your family? Does a photo of Cabo San Lucas trump the story told by the original San Lucas? Is Christmas really about you?
I agree with Fr. Jim. I prefer traditional Christmas cards, too. But, I must say, this is the closest to curmudgeonly I've ever seen this friendly Jesuit.
Hat-tip: The Anchoress
Friday, December 05, 2008
The entire piece is worth a look but this graph in particular stood out to me:
At such a gathering a month ago, there would have been some angry mutterings at John McCain, but not now. He's come quietly back to the Senate, where one of his colleagues told him of an amazing thing. The colleague had been touring the young democracies of Eastern Europe during the American election, and he found it wasn't so much Barack Obama that immediately knocked out observers but Mr. McCain's concession speech. This is the first American transfer of power they'd seen in eight years, and they couldn't get over the peacefulness and grace with which Mr. McCain accepted the people's verdict. "It really impressed them," the colleague told Mr. McCain, and later me. It gave them a template, a guide to how the older democracies do it. When he told me of this, I remembered the observation of a journalist who had covered Russia. The Russian newspapers had generally played down Mr. Obama's victory, she said, because it got in the way of the establishment line: that the corrupt American democracy is composed of two warring family machines that have the system wired and controlled with the help of their corporate oligarch cronies. It's not a real democracy but a pretend democracy, and a hypocritical one. This helps the Russians rationalize and excuse their infirm hold on democratic ways and manners. And then the black man from Chicago with no longtime machine or money is elected . . .
Here's a version of that piece for this week's "YouTube clip for a peaceful weekend."
Thursday, December 04, 2008
Jon, five weeks shy of his 32nd birthday, died from complications from muscular dystrophy.
To quote the rabbi who conducted the service, Jon was a true Renaissance man. While he was still in high school, Jon had a 30-minute face-to-face meeting (thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation) with President Bill Clinton in which they discussed the concerns of people with disabilities. He also helped to create a play performed at Lincoln Center on these concerns.
At NYU, Jon was a student senator-at-large and a devotee of the women’s basketball team, notably in 1997 when they won the NCAA Division III Championship. He even managed the pep band that played at the games. (I sat next to one of the pep band members today before the funeral service, which was standing-room only.)
By the time I met John in the mid-1990s, he had already spent years confined to a wheelchair. But, that never stopped him. Jon rarely, if ever, skipped a group outing to one of the restaurants or bars around NYU. One year, a group of us from NYU’s Inter-Residence Hall Council that included Jon and his personal-care aide even traveled to Oklahoma for a NACURH conference.
I regret that I lost touch with Jon in the years after I moved back to Pittsburgh. Today I learned that, since we had last spoken, he had added cooking and TV cooking shows to his passions that already included film and computers.
Jon was a brave and good man. Our world is less for his passing.
At Jon's funeral service, the rabbi read (in both Hebrew and English) the 23rd Psalm:
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures He gives me repose;
Before restful waters He leads me; He refreshes my soul.
He guides me in right paths for His name's sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil;
For you are at my side, with your rod and your staff that give me courage.
You spread a table for me in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Only goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.
Jon’s death is one of three in my world in the past few days.
On Thanksgiving Day, my second cousin once removed, Joshua Vincenti, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Josh was only 24.
And, sometime between Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, the mother of a good friend from Pittsburgh died at the age of 78. Her death was discovered after she missed the morning Mass at her parish.
I pray that these three souls are now in the warm embrace of God. And, I pray that the Holy Spirit may sustain all those who loved them and mourn their passing.
From the words at the end of the Funeral Mass:
May the angels lead you into paradise,
may the martyrs come to welcome you,
and take you to the holy city,
the new and eternal Jerusalem.
Monday, December 01, 2008
A Concord Pastor and Rocco both have good posts on World AIDS Day with Church-related resources. Rocco's post includes this 2007 quote from Pope Benedict XVI:
"Next 1 December again marks World AIDS Day. I'm spiritually close to the many who suffer from this terrible illness as well as their families, particularly those stricken by the loss of a loved one. Assuring all of my prayers, I likewise wish to exhort all people of good will to multiply their efforts to stop the spread of the HIV virus, to combat the harm which affects so many, and to take on themselves the care of the sick, especially those who are young."