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.

 

Manhunt: Unabomber

Manhunt: Unabomber is a Discovery Channel miniseries about the 1990s hunt for the Unabomber that culminated in a raid of his Montana cabin. This dramatized series was surprisingly good, with outstanding performances by Sam Worthington as FBI agent ‘Fitz’ and Paul Bettany as Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Bettany’s performance as Kaczynski is particularly poignant. Not appearing until a few episodes in, Bettany plays the role in heartbreaking duet of genius and inner chaos. The result is a highly sympathetic- but not forgivable- portrait of Kaczinski as a man psychologically ground down by his inability to meld with the world.

I had no idea that Kaczinski was subjected to MKUltra experimentation while an underaged math student at Harvard (he entered Harvard at age 16). In fact, I had no idea MKUltra experiments were run on Harvard students at all! It sounds like a wild conspiracy theory, but is in fact sad truth and assuredly part and parcel to Kaczinski’s bizarre reign of terror.

Bettany’s performance aside, the most fascinating element of the series is its emphasis on language and linguistics. I don’t know how closely this holds to the actual investigation, but it is only through Kaczinski’s idiosyncratic actes de plume that the case cracks open with an accurate profile; investigators are able to match his writing to an obscure style guide briefly followed by The Chicago Tribune, thus pinpointing him as having learned to read and write in the Chicago area.

All in all the series is well paced and highly watchable. I’m ashamed to admit I spent an entire saturday glued to the screen. Manhunt: Unabomber is available on netflix streaming as of this writing.

Zootopia Looks Like Staten Island

After all the hype, after my mother raved about it, after my children raved about it– including my 19 year old nerd son with ice in the veins– after my daughter put the dvd on view for her psych ward– I watched Zootopia once it was on netflix. I’ll reserve my observations for a future post, but I could not help but notice that the city of Zootopia greatly resembles Staten Island.

zoo1

zoo2

staten-island

I’ll note this: if having a tiny bunny on the police force is novel, how does Zootopia police its rodent population? That doesn’t make sense.

First Comes Love

First Comes Love is a 2012 documentary from Nina Davenport detailing her desire to conceive a child sans husband, as she has failed to find Mr. Right by age 41. Having yearned her whole life for motherhood, she enlists the sperm of handsome gay friend Eric and we’re off to the races.

I watched this documentary twice. The first go-round it rubbed me the wrong way. Nina and her vast social network are cringeworthily solipsistic and emotionally stunted. I began to wonder how this small army of navel gazing intellectuals manage to pull their pants down in the morning to pee. And half of them, including Davenport, went to Harvard! I even stated aloud to my husband: “I can’t review this; it would be too cruel.”

Yet when I watched her film a second time I felt far more empathy for Ms. Davenport’s plight. Despite copious dating, no relationship grows to fruition. She even dates when she’s pregnant, to a charming film critic named John (note to Nina: if you ever read this review, get John back!). I had to wonder if these aging men and women, after so many years of ill-fated prospects, simply lack the ability to connect to one another long term. Nina even has to attend couples therapy with her best friend Amy to navigate their interactions.

Yet beneath Nina’s whiny exterior burns a bona fide desire to be a mother, and this is an urge none of us can criticize. After all, the maternal instinct is what transformed us from slimy fish to land dwelling mammals: concerned mother fish flopped in the mud for safer ground to lay eggs, and eventually that led to legs.

And oh does Davenport flop around. Between awkward conversations with the sperm donor, viscerally painful battles with her father- who perpetually hides behind a print New York Times and barks that she “Get an abortion!” after her pregnancy announcement- and her floundering sense of self, I began to feel maternal toward this poor creature and wondered if perhaps I could adopt her.

The filmmaking is choppy, neither here nor there, and the docu is fundamentally not about Davenport’s burgeoning motherhood, but rather her tumultuous relationship with her family of origin. In that respect I was disappointed to see details of pregnancy glossed over: she goes from taxi with sperm donor to suddenly third trimester pregnant, though the birth scene, which handsome Eric decides to avoid but later attends, is not to be missed.

All in all First Comes Love is a confused and confusing enterprise that nonetheless affirms the beauty of motherhood. And despite their flaws, Nina and Eric manage to produce the cutest baby in human history- but you’ll have to watch the film to see him!

Currently First Comes Love is available on Netflix streaming.

The Well-Fed Zombie Apocalypse

[contains spoilers through early season 5 WD]

I was never much of a TV watcher, even as a kid. In fact I watched absolutely no TV for most of my teenage years, and in my young adulthood discovered only one show I bothered to tune into: The X-Files.

Then I met, and married, my husband. Because he works in the entertainment field he calls watching TV “work.” And he worked a lot. I more than once quipped I had married the back of someone’s head.

Since life is long and lonely I occasionally joined him. I grew fond of Voyager and completely obsessed with Enterprise. Then came a lot of breastfeeding babies, and Netflix. Instead of lying in bed like a mindless lactating cow, I could instead perch before Netflix like a mindless American. I watched all of Battlestar Galactica while nursing my now 4 year old. And once done with that I ventured into a land I never dared tread- the horror genre- and tried the much touted Walking Dead while my daughter gulped at my breast.

“Remember the zombies are just makeup…” my husband reassured, and sure enough I was hooked. I still maintain the first season is outstanding and a must-see, even if, like me, you’re averse to gore. It goes downhill from there and by season 4 I was done. It was just stupid.

Yet the siren’s call of Netflix persisted, and once season 5 was added I sat down for an episode. Herein follow my thoughts on the first few episodes of season 5.

gratuitous gore
Maybe the writers were desperate but there is simply too much gratuitous slime, violence, and blood in the opening episodes (I’m up to episode 4). Yeah, I know we’re dealing with cannibals. But do they really have to show it? I mean sometimes less is more, kwim?

Nor do I understand why people are resorting to cannibalism when in theory wildlife should be teeming against a decimated human population (zombies aren’t smart enough to hunt).

magic car batteries
As with previous seasons car batteries are miraculously up and at ’em after years sitting around untouched. If I don’t drive my 10 year old van for a couple weeks, the battery’s dead as a doornail and AAA charges (no pun intended) to the rescue.

normal to overweight BMI
The thinnest BMI amongst our survivors is in the 18-19 range, with most presenting in the 22ish range, plus a few corpulent survivors. That’s right, even in the most dire of survivalist settings people manage to maintain a high/normal BMI. Some are even steroid-buff (Tyreese and Abraham).

abraham
big muscles- and token white hispanic- apocalypse style

Yet we rarely see them obtain food, or even eat. Sure there are the occasional grocery runs for a cartful of canned food, and Daryl betimes rustles up squirrels, but there isn’t nearly enough food prep nor feasting for our motley crew to remain so plump and lively.

I shop for and prepare food for a household of ten people. Even with the modern conveniences of Costco and a functioning kitchen, it is essentially a full time job to ensure everyone is well fed and content. Yet somehow the cast of WD manages to maintain a normal weight while constantly fighting zombies, slaying enemy camps, indulging in profound dialogue over the nature of existence, all while unchained to the stove.

modest female zombies
Perhaps the zombie plague disproportionately impacted haredi jews and the FLDS. The majority of female zombies sport modest, ankle-covering skirts, long sleeved blouses, and long hair (I gues the FLDS braids came undone in the mayhem). Look out in your daily life and tell me how many women are sporting long hair and full-length skirts. Not a lot. Yet somehow in the zombie apocalypse, women are concerned about looking feminine.

***

That all being said season 5 isn’t nearly as bad as I anticipated. In fact it touches profoundly upon themes of religion, the human struggle, and choices we face when desperate. This is the backbone of the series and the main reason I continue to watch, even if apathetically.

Don’t tell me what happens in season 6, as I can’t stay up past 9pm.

Staten Island Summer

When I first noticed Staten Island Summer on Netflix I was delighted. A movie about Staten Island! Since when does that happen? I mean there was Copland which I believe was a thinly disguised version of Staten Island, but generally this island, despite its proximity to the cultural mecca of Manhhatan, has been left out of the cinematic universe. I eagerly clicked PLAY.

Sixty seconds in I knew I was in serious trouble. A “cartoon New Jersey” copulates with a “cartoon Brooklyn” to give birth to Staten Island. Yuck! Could they have been more crass? Technically this is true as Staten Island accents are a blend of Brooklyn and New Jersey- but animate it as porn? Blech. This was only the beginning.  From that initial point vulgarity, vapidity, and aimlessness only increased. Dick jokes, cleavage jokes, masturbation jokes. No, no, no!

I decided to lie back and think of England, enduring the whole damned 108 minutes of this monstrosity.

Let me state it bluntly: this is a horrible movie. Horribly written, horribly acted (with allowance for the disgusting, pointless script) horribly edited, there’s no significant plot, the characterization is abysmal and I’m pretty sure most of the scenes shot in “Great Kills” were in fact shot on the dreaded North Shore. Mysteriously no one in this film has a Staten Island accent except for the token guido, mafia boss, and extras. That’s right folks: the major players in a film about Staten Island sound like Julliard trained actors. I should have expected as much.

Staten-Island-Summer-Netflix-Premiere
Et tu, Brute?

There were a few funny scenes, or at least I found myself laughing once or twice through this sorrowful adventure. The scene where John DeLuca- the token guido- struggles with basic math on his Navy exam was funny. The animated scene where creepy pool manager (Michael Patrick O’Brien) births Satan’s spawn was humorous. The scene where the cops, mafia, African American drug dealers, and the crazed Hispanic maintenance worker all pull guns on each other was vaguely funny. But otherwise this was a giant waste of time and hardly emblematic of the city’s most verdant borough. Maybe writer Colin Jost spent too much time in Hollywood, but this was a useless, worthless, unavailing cinematic effort no matter which vantage point you approach it from. Don’t squander your life watching this film! Or at least fast-forward to the sparse scenes that might make you laugh.

Dance Moms

I’m ashamed to say I’ve been watching Dance Moms on netflix. I tried watching it upon first airing, but found it painfully boring and mind-numbingly shallow. So why I can stomach it now, I’m unsure. Perhaps, armed with the power of streaming, I can skip the worst parts. As my daughter Amadea intoned: it’s so horrible it’s mesmerizing.

For those who don’t know, Dance Moms is a reality show revolving around The Abby Lee Dance Company, her lead team of dancers, and those dancers’ mothers. Here are my thoughts.

  • Abby Lee. I actually like her. She’s tough and no-nonsense. It’s not unusual for her to tell a crying child to suck it up and deal with it. We need more adults like this in the world, because children these days are coddled. I often think my worst mistake as a parent has been being too easy on my kids. Abby is also really fat, which is weird for a dance coach presiding over stick-thin little girls. But it doesn’t seem to bother her; she dresses well for her weight and has success with speed dating.
  • The moms. The “dance moms” provide the bulk of drama in the series.These women are so unbelievably brassy, catty, shallow, back stabbing and emotionally vicious that I had to wonder if it was all scripted. But I honestly don’t think it is, at least not entirely; these ladies are genuinely horrid. They wear thick layers of makeup such that they appear to be sporting masks, and while not fat, they’re all chunky and dumpy. They drink loads of alcohol. The moms remind of Kate from Kate Plus 8. In fact many of them look like her. Is this a Pennsylvania thing? Nasty personalities, and harshly dyed hair?
  • The girls. The dancers are sweet, hard working little kids. I felt bad for them being caught up in this web of vicarious living at the hands of their crazed mothers.
  • The dancing. The dancing and dance techniques are subpar. They would be laughed out of town by a real dance school such as ABT or the Kirov. Their dance style is best described as stripper routines plus gymnastics, and even the best dancers are not that good. Which leads us to:
  • Hypersexualization. The costumes they put these little kids in are insane. I think every pedophile on earth must be glued to this series. A typical costume looks like underwear with a sprinkle of sequins. What the heck? I can’t imagine putting my girls in these outfits. What is everyone thinking? And it’s not just the costumes; the dances contain more bumping, grinding, and booty shaking than an evening in Atlantic City would provide. Except these kids are nine years old.

dancemoms
you thought I was exaggerating

However, in watching this series I got the same feeling I derived from Toddlers in Tiaras. As crazed as the parents might be, they’re deeply involved with their kids’ lives and make sure the children are always busy with life outside the home. Again, if I were to fault myself as a parent it’s that I’m entirely too checked out. I feed them, I bathe them (the younger ones anyway) but beyond that they do their thing and I do my thing. Am I supposed to be ferrying them around town to a myriad of extracurricular experiences, watching their every developmental move? Maybe, but I don’t. I’m not nearly the helicopter parent these dance moms are. The closest I come is doling advice out to the the overachiever, who practically begs for it. Quite frankly I feel I deserve a medal for getting them to school on time for three years in a row. I do deserve that, don’t I?

Hot Girls Wanted

When I noticed the documentary Hot Girls Wanted on netflix I knew I had to watch it. Of course I love documentaries- I could happily watch a documentary about mold- plus I have a longstanding fascination with sex workers. What makes a woman cross the line to engage in the oldest profession known to man?

Hot Girls Wanted focuses on the internet-spawned “amateur” industry of very young women, most only 18 or 19 years old, trying to forge their way into online porn. Answering an ad in craigslist they are invited to the home of a “talent agent” who rents out bedrooms, and assists the girls in getting shoots. The girls advertise themselves on twitter (which does not censor pornographic content) and most have lofty plans to make it big in the industry.

As for their motivations, most express a desire for a quick escape from their parents; at upward to $1000 per shoot they amass sums of money that, from their teenage vantage point, appear vast. Some express a desire to feel “liberated” or “free.” Miriam Weeks, aka Belle Knox, the Duke University student who famously financed her tuition by working in porn, waxes poetic about the feminist empowerment she experiences on the set.

However all that glitters is ultimately not gold for these women. While the docu does not necessarily have an anti-porn bent, it starkly illustrates the paradox of supposed female empowerment against the degradation they are subjected to at work, including abusive fetish acts, and uncertainty about their contractual obligations if they’re not comfortable with a particular request by a producer. The film also exposes the heartrending conflicts of young women trying to come to grips with their choices, while remaining loyal to the values of family and loved ones.

In terms of raunchiness the film is relatively tame, at least considering the subject matter. There is some brief topless female nudity, and non-nude clips from disturbing “abuse” videos. So if you’re looking for titillation you’ll come away disappointed, as the film focuses on the psychological and logistical factors in the lives of fledgling porn actresses.

One thing that amazed me is that none of these women seem to be on birth control, and, filming in Miami, they don’t use condoms (which are mandatory in films executed in Los Angeles). One girl blithely describes getting “paid extra” for Plan B at Walgreens! This makes me think porn stars are not the most forward-thinking bunch, and are probably not considering the long term implications of their career choice.