The Good Catholic

[spoiler free]

The Good Catholic is a 2017 drama-slash-comedy, written and directed by Paul Shoulberg, about a catholic priest who finds himself drawn to a woman who wanders into his confessional. The priest then wrangles with his emotions, faith, and vocation.

The film is clearly low budget, with a video look and fixed scenes. But the acting is excellent; Zachary Spicer is poignant as the straight laced Father Daniel; Wrenn Schmidt is striking as the artsy, intense, annoying Jane; Danny Glover delivers an excellent performance as the glowering Father Victor, and Father Ollie- my favorite character- is beautifully acted by John McGinley.

I intentionally have avoided reading reviews of The Good Catholic, because while watching it I couldn’t tell if this is something catholics would love or hate. Catholics are weird- you never know what will offend them. I’ve had casual catholics freak out on me over the vaguest slight to their faith, even when I meant no harm.

I’m going to guess catholics will split 50-50 over this film. While yes there are offensive scenes where Jane is disrespectful toward priests, the priests themselves and the church are displayed in a highly affectionate and favorable light. There is no catholic bashing as Hollywood is wont to do.

So yes I recommend this film. It’s kind of a fluff piece and in places tries too hard to be profound, but the relationships and character development are sweetly intriguing and the acting on point throughout.

The film is available on netflix as of this posting.

 

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Among the Believers

Among the Believers is a 2015 documentary illustrating the ideological divide between Pakistani fundamentalists and the secular segments of society. While a decent documentary, I have my usual quibbles with pacing and stylistic measures. There is a lot of time jumping which I found irritating and the pacing is ‘off.’ Ultimately we are shown how the red mosque siege led to the horrific peshawar school attack, but by this point in the docu it is more of a footnote and not the meat of the film.

Remarkably we are shown extensive inside footage of life inside a red mosque madrasa. Children are woken an hour before dawn and then recite/ memorize the koran until night. That’s right: they spend full days doing nothing but reciting and memorizing the koran (which they don’t understand in arabic), with occasional food breaks; one former student claims they are fed just once a day. Indeed many of the young students look guant and undernourished, with sunken eyes and washed out complexion. It is a brutal existence but only slightly less brutal than what awaits on the outside. For the boys, harsh manual labor; for the girls, way too early marriage.

One of the more disturbing scenes is a brief interview with a red mosque pupil. With unfeigned confusion he asks: why is he considered a ‘terrorist?’ After all, he explains, he is a mujihadeen who kills infidels in the name of allah. He truly saw no connection.

As disturbing as the documentary was, something about it bothered me beyond the political fray. I couldn’t put my finger on it, until it dawned on me a few days later: politics, religion, foreign policy aside, what is taking place in these madrasas is child abuse. Forcing young children to do nothing for 10+ hours but memorize a single book (any book!) is abusive. There is no playing, no cerebral investigation, no nurturing. These children are being robbed of their childhoods, with no chance to be a kid.

The children, especially the younger children, are shown rocking back and forth as they recite koran. While I know rocking back and forth can be part of prayer- orthodox men rock back and forth while davening– this to me looked like a stress reaction. It reminded me of footage I’ve seen from eastern european orphanages where children rock endlessly back and forth in an effort to soothe themselves. And that’s basically what these madrasas are, ‘orphanages’ for the very poor whose parents- facing few options – surrender them.

Why the treatment of these children in madrasas isn’t considered a human rights issue on par with child labor is beyond me, and I wish it had been better addressed by the docu. The docu also overlooks the glaring class issues at play: secularists in Pakistan tend to be upper class and well off, while extremists tend to emerge from dire poverty. And given high rates of cousin marriage in Pakistan, this creates a de facto caste system that further cements the divide.

Among the Believers is available on netflix as of this posting.

One of Us

One of Us is a documentary about the plight of hasidic jews who choose to leave the enclave of their community. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady of Jesus Camp fame, we follow the lives of three hasidic jews who step outside the confines of community norms. Etty is a 32 year old mother of seven children who divorces her abusive husband; Ari is an outside-the-box teenager with a drug habit, and Luzer is an actor who abandons his wife and children to pursue his dream in California.

Etty’s battle to maintain custody of her children is particularly heartbreaking and exhibits the double standard New York courts apply to ultra orthodox women versus secular women. If a secular woman has a standing history of abuse from her husband and can illustrate as much in court, there is absolutely no way he will be granted full custody of the children. But what seems a given is an uphill battle for Etty. The entire community finances and supports her husband while relentlessly harassing her; she is more than once deliberately hit by a car and a letter is circulated around the community to solicit legal funds to save the children “from satan.” While I had heard stories of hasidic women treated horrifically in divorce and custody settlements, I never realized how perilous the reality could be for them.

This is a good documentary but not as good as Jesus Camp. The pacing is a little sloppy and some camera work sub par. I would have liked to have seen more of the hasidic community writ large, heard from some rabbis (one rabbi does give commentary later in the film) or learned more about other hasids who venture beyond the fold. Perhaps a broader scope was not possible given how insular and anti-media hasdic jews are: internet access is forbidden, as is the viewing of secular media. In one particularly painful scene Ari is approached by an older man asking if the park has wi-fi access. Ari initially misunderstands the question to indicate the man wants access, and offers him the use of his phone. What entails is an icy third degree and brief lecture on how Ari should repent for cutting his payot (side curls) and engaging in the secular world.

One of Us takes you on a tour of disbelief; disbelief that a thirteen year old has never used google. Disbelief that these individuals, born and raised in Brooklyn, struggle to speak standard english. Disbelief that a kind and loving mother would need to fight for any access to her children. Disbelief that Ewing and Grady even managed to produce this film in the first place! I have to hand it to them- given how deeply sequestered and guarded hasidic society is, these two women have some guts.

This docu gets two thumbs up from yours truly, though I came away slightly disappointed from a technical aspect. As I have preached before, interesting content but poor execution is the singular disease of the documentary world, and while well done, One of Us doesn’t quite hit the mark of Jesus Camp.

 

War

When we first moved into this house we quickly discovered we adopted a mouse along with the mortgage. Every once in a while a brown flash would dart from beneath one cabinet to beneath the oven. Yes, I screamed. I’m not afraid of mice but the abrupt nature of their appearance is alarming, a dark blur flying across the floor like a giant cockroach from hell. Other sightings were reported by the children who expressed equal alarm. My husband and I considered mouse traps in walgreens, but, half out of pity and half out of frugality, I didn’t want to bother. After all, other than occasionally freaking us out, what harm was he or she inflicting?

I have no ethical issue with killing animals. I don’t even feel bad when I watch those gory factory farm PETA videos. But I figured… why not let mouse bygones be bygones. Couldn’t we all just get along?

That was nine years ago. Fast forward to the past few months and apparently that mouse got married. Because the mouse sightings are now mice sightings (my son saw four at once!) and what was a rare encounter was now, between the ten of us, a diurnal one. They skittered above my ceiling while I tried to sleep; they tore around my son’s room; they skulked in the downstairs kitchen, so bold as to sniff bananas and avocados when I was standing right there at the counter!

That’s it, I thought to myself. This is war.

My son and I put our heads together: poison? No. My sister used rat poison on her own infestation and had dead rats rotting in the walls for months (imagine the smell!). We decided to try both glue traps and snap traps, and I was grateful my oldest daughter wasn’t within earshot: she spent the majority of her senior year writing rambling, encyclopedic-length animal rights screeds.

We set up the traps in areas with the most frequent mouse sightings (it’s a big house). My oldest daughter by this point noticed what was going on.

What kind of traps? she asked, visibly distraught.

Glue traps.

Not glue traps! she pleaded. Mommy I’ll buy humane traps myself!

Nope.

We had kills within hours of setting out those traps, or rather we had catches. Then we had to figure out how to dispose of the glued mice. Just throw them out in a bag? Drown them? I once knew someone whose father would drown mice in the toilet, before disposing of them.

I looked my son in the eye. How about the freezer?

That’s what I was thinking, he replied. But wasn’t sure…

Do it!

Unfortunately the snap traps aren’t working- I had high hopes of feeding the mice to the feral cats, but am concerned the glue might make them sick. So far only the glue traps have yielded casualties. One amazon reviewer claimed to have caught an 18 inch snake with a single glue trap! So if you are in a position to consider a vermin trap, I highly recommend these glue traps. Hooyah!

Game of Thrones Methadone

[mild spoiler Vikings season 401]

Here is one of the better scenes in Vikings 401, where Aethelwulf attempts to rescue Queen Kwenthrith at the behest of King Ecbert. She’s been locked in a tower with her illegitimate son (fathered by Ragnar).

If anyone out there is in Game of Thrones withdrawal, this should scratch the itch. In fact Vikings has long been recognized as Game of Thrones methadone. Be sure to watch both parts through to the end- that final line is priceless!

 

Vikings Season 401

[spoiler free]

I finished the first ten episodes of season 4 Vikings, History channel’s epic rendition of Ragnar Lothbrok’s campaigns into foreign lands. As I mentioned in my previous review of Vikings I was genuinely surprised by how visually stunning and dramatically gripping the first three seasons were. Truly this is a magnificent- and more or less historically accurate- show.

Unfortunately season 401 lags behind its predecessors; the writing is weak and pacing sloppy- at times the writers unsuccessfully attempt to inject humor into the scripts. Some episodes occasionally, and not intentionally, border on farce (in fact there is a farce of Vikings, Norsemen– it’s terrible) and in some more awkward dramatic exchanges it is again painfully clear the actors playing vikings are in fact stuntmen by trade. Ex-model Travis Fimmel spends a lot of time grimacing, not too convincingly.

One of the stranger aspects of season 401 is Ragnar’s bizarre relationship with Yidu. Aside from the fact their encounter would be 99.9% historically implausible, I have my own theories on this: I think Yidu is a figment of Ragnar’s imagination. Their interaction is just too strange to explain otherwise, unless the writers just felt like being weird.


talking to himself?

Vikings fans can take heart because by episode 6 the snoozefest stops and the action picks up. It felt like the normal Vikings again, with well paced plots, astonishing panoramas and breathtaking battle scenes. Aethelwulf’s strike against Mercia is not to be missed (one of the few good scenes in early episodes) and Ragnar’s recalculation against Paris is amazing in recreation. Rollo’s procession through Paris alone makes this choppy half-season worth watching.

I was disappointed by the treatment of religion in this season. What was adroit and nuanced in previous seasons (Athelstan’s turmoil with conflicting belief systems, for example) felt kind of sloppy and forced here. Some episodes had literal montages of viking – saxon – frankish customs, cutting from a religious event of one group to another. It was like paging through a textbook. However I did learn the christmas custom of mistletoe is of viking origin. Who knew?

 

Vikings and Common Core

I had a decent long weekend (long due to the snowday- one school had both thurs and friday off), even helped my 4th grader with math. Her school, like most schools these days, uses a kooky common core approach for basic math. All these weird grids, charts, nebulous instructions and strange doodles for simple division. Was this some kind of sick joke? Anyway I showed her how to divide the way I was taught in school, the ‘tableau’ method.

After just ONE example her eyes lit up! ‘That’s so simple,’ she said, sounding genuinely surprised, and she abandoned her crazy charts, quickly polishing off three workbook pages. I warned her to keep trying the way her teacher instructs math… I don’t want to piss anyone off.

I don’t like to discuss politics but suffice it to say I’ve seen nothing good since the catholic school converted to common core standards and tests.

Anyway I spent much of Saturday watching vikings season 4. I absolutely loved vikings season 1-3 but season 4… well it sucks. Much to my heartbreak. The plots are erratic, there are weird nonsensical sex scenes, and I highly doubt vikings spent much time pondering their inner true selves, but apparently season 4 vikings are filled with ontological doubt.

Then I started to feel sick. At first I was in denial but by midnight I was awake with a fever, body aches, and a killer sore throat. Not again!

I could barely sleep and sunday morning limped into urgentcare. Sure enough I have strep AGAIN! This time the doctor prescribed a stronger AB, I limped back home and spent the remainder of the day languishing in bed.

I have a few theories. 1) god is mad at me 2) I re-infected myself somehow (I did buy a new toothbrush!!) 3) one of my children is an asymptomatic carrier- a few days ago I ate a few bites of leftover chicken off one daughter’s plate. What can I say, I was starving!

You Like Led Zeppelin?

While birthday shopping for my now sixteen year old I noticed a led zeppelin t-shirt at target. I’ve always wanted a led zeppelin t-shirt! I obsessed a little over the size (to wear as a nightshirt or not to wear as a nightshirt?) waffled over whether to spend $12 on myself, but through the checkout did it survive. Later that day I warned my husband: I bought a led zeppelin shirt while shopping for ***** so don’t be alarmed if you see me wearing it.

He blinked, nonplussed. You like led zeppelin?!

This wouldn’t be a strange exchange were it not for the fact this is at least the FIFTH time we’ve had this conversation in 20 years: I mention something regarding led zeppelin, he acts completely stunned and asks: you like led zeppelin? Like he never heard me utter the name before. YES I LIKE LED ZEPPELIN.

Indeed, led zeppelin was one of the few non-classical artists I heard as a kid. In her teens, my sister briefly dated a guy who was into led zeppelin- the group was an ‘oldie’ even then- and while the relationship did not last the music did. I was struck by the expert musicianship, the pathos of plant’s voice, the relentless complexity and melancholy. My favorites were kashmir and the battle of evermore. But admit it: ALL their music is good!

In true superhuman form robert plant’s voice is still damn good. Have you heard his songs with alison kraus? They sound like a duet of angels. The guy is nearly 70 and his voice is still astonishingly poignant. Most rock singers lose their voice well before middle age.

 

32 Pills

32 Pills is not the kind of documentary I typically gravitate to, but it kept appearing at the top of the HBO documentary list, perhaps because its title begins with a number which ‘alphabetically’ precedes A in some lists.

I started watching it when I was sick, but it was so sad and depressing I had to stop. When I regrouped my inner wherewithal a few days later, I finished watching.

The documentary is about the painful lives of Ruth and Hope Litoff, two sisters who grew up with privilege in manhattan in the 1980s and 90s. Both sisters are beautiful, intelligent, artistic, educated and well off, but manage to fall down the rabbit holes of mental illness and substance abuse respectively. After a lifetime of depression, emotional volatility and countless suicide attempts, Ruth kills herself at the age of 42.

32 Pills is the saga of surviving sister Hope trying to come to terms not just with her sister’s suicide but with the ghosts of their fraught relationship and painful family history.

More than once the documentary crosses the line from ‘documentation’ to exhibitionism. I struggled to see how so much public bandaid-ripping could in any way be healing to this poor woman, whose first drink in 16 years (double vodka on the rocks) is filmed via selfie cam. In another scene her beleaguered husband is following her around their beautiful apartment, camera in hand, while she frantically throws back drinks.

The quality of this documentary is not great. The pacing is weird and I disliked the endless montages of creepy, scribbly drawings from Ruth’s journals (montages, in general, get on my nerves in documentaries). In terms of execution I’d give this docu a weak 4 on a 1-10 scale; in terms of human interest I’d give it a 6 to 7. Unfortunately this is a common theme in the documentary world- interesting subject, poor execution.

I’m not sure I can recommend this documentary unless you happen to have some kind of personal connection to losing a loved one through suicide (I hope you don’t), or an interest in documentaries about drug addiction and mental illness. Just be forewarned it’s incredibly sad.

Christmas Music Wrap Up

I know I’m late with this, but here are some of the christmas songs the kids and I enjoyed this holiday season.

This one my 16 year old discovered. More than once, while playing, someone would ask is this michael jackson.

The wonderful mercy me. On my bucket list is seeing these guys in concert, though by the time I’m dying they’ll probably be dying too. Unless god has something prematurely in store for me.

An odd little tune I discovered on the ancient contraption known as the radio. Who knew mary was the queen of galilee!

And my kids are crazy for pentatonix, especially my 9 year old.

I know christmas music can get annoying, but I enjoy finding unusual or lesser known holiday tunes.