Jonah and the Whale

Posted on September 18, 2010 at 8:00 am

On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Jews study the story of Jonah and the Whale. The Jewish educational and outreach group AISH says

In a certain sense it is very much the story of Yom Kippur’s essence — return to God. It teaches us about our voyage and ourselves.

Literary critic Judith Shulevitz has a nice essay about the importance of this story for adults during the Days of Awe.

You can almost see God’s thought-process here: If Jonah can bring such will and determination and even a certain nobility of spirit to ignoring me, how much more valuable will he be once I turn him to my ways? The further Jonah runs, the more he convinces God that he’s worth chasing after. And that’s what I think the satire is meant to get across in the Book of Jonah: We can go to any lengths, make ourselves ridiculous as possible, in your efforts to escape God, but the very intensity and absurdity and even the painfulness of our flight shows God how much potential passion we have lacked inside us, to say nothing of how much we must actually want and need him. And seeing that, God may laugh at us a little, but he will not abandon us.

Certainly one element in telling this story each year is that it puts some of the day’s meaning in terms children can understand.

The beautiful Rabbit Ears version of the story, narrated by Jason Robards, is only available on VHS, but I hope someday the entire series will be released on DVD. The Veggie Tales version has the company’s trademark silly charm.

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Based on a book Shorts Spiritual films

Knowing

Posted on July 7, 2009 at 8:00 am

When MIT astrophysics professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage in one-note mournful mode) looks distracted and thoughtful as he invites his class to debate randomness vs. determinism, you don’t have to be much of a determinist to figure out that as inevitably as night follows day, John is about to be hit with some Evidence of a Greater Plan. This isn’t determinism, the idea that events that may seem random are a part of some greater pattern. This is just predictable hogwash, and it gets even hogwashier until it arrives at an ending that manages to be inevitable, uninspired, and preposterous.

John’s son Caleb (a sincere Chandler Canterbury) attends a school that is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The ceremony involves opening a time capsule filled with drawings from children on its opening day. But the envelope Caleb is given to open does not have a drawing of spaceships. It has an apparently random string of numbers. John notices that one string is 09/11/2001 and the number killed that day. A night-long Google search later, he has assigned many of the numbers to known disasters — and figured out that the final three dates are still in the future.

And then this becomes just another big, dumb, loud, effects-driven movie. Forget determinism; if one character behaved in a rational manner, the movie would be 20 minutes long. Three dates in the future? That of course means that the first one is there to prove the theory. Next, John figures out that the next one will happen in NY. Instead of staying in Cambridge, he heads for the location so that he — and the audience — can be in the middle of a technically impressive but narratively brutal catastrophe. And then we are all headed for the big finish (and I mean FINISH), but first there is a lot of completely pointless racing around in a fruitless attempt to build some tension.

The movie sinks from dumb to offensive first when it devotes so much loving detail to the graphic, even clinical depiction of pointless calamity and second when it ultimately and cynically appropriates signifiers of religious import in an attempt to justify itself. Professor Koestler, in a world of rational determinism, this movie would never have gotten the green light. Case closed.

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“Gothika Rule” Spoiler Alert Thriller

BFCA Summer Movie Predictions

Posted on June 2, 2009 at 10:00 am

The Broadcast Film Critics have announced their predictions for the movies of summer 2009:
Summer Blockbusters:
Star Trek
Up
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Summer Sleepers:
Away We Go
500 Days of Summer
The Hurt Locker
Outstanding Performances of the Summer:
Johnny Depp in “Public Enemies”
Meryl Streep in “Julie and Julia”
Brad Pitt in “Inglorious Basterds”

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture
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Interview: Paul Newman biographer Shawn Levy

Posted on May 27, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Movie critic Shawn Levy, author of the superb books King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis and Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey and the Last Great Show Biz Party, has a new book about one of the most accomplished and adored movie stars of all time, Paul Newman. He very kindly made time for an interview in the midst of his book tour.

Q: Newman was one of those rare performers who become icons of their eras. What was it about his style of acting and choices of scripts that seemed so particularly characteristic of the post-WWII years?

A: He often played younger than he really was, like many actors, but it was particularly his casting as the failed sons of strong fathers in such films as “The Rack,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Hud” and, in a sense, “The Long Hot Summer” and “The Hustler” that cemented him as an icon. He carried the sensitivity of James Dean into a new era when the promise of a film like “Rebel Without a Cause” bled into mainstream and prestige films. He easily segued into rebel/countercultural figures starting in the mid-’60s (“Harper,” “Hombre,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Butch Cassidy”). And because he was older than the characters he was playing (he was 38 when he made “Hud”), he also carried a savor of mature authority. He played, in short, equally well to both the establishment and the kids who threw mudballs at it.

Q: Is there a performance of Newman’s that you think is particularly overlooked or underrated?

A: His turn as the stage manager in the Broadway production of “Our Town,” which is available on DVD, is a classic bit of Americana. In movies, “Hombre” is tough and sullen and cool in a way you’d associate more with, oh, Steve McQueen than Newman. Both excellent films.

Q: What did he consider his biggest failing?

A: In acting, he felt he was too mechanical and calculating for the first 25 years or so of his career, and I think I’d agree. You see him pulling poses and striking moods quite deliberately even in such fine films as “The Hustler” and “Hud.” But later in life he ratcheted back and produced some astonishing performances. In life, I think he felt he was a very remote and arbitrary father until he reevaluated himself after the death of his son, Scott, in 1978.

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Actors Books Interview

‘Star Trek’ and ‘Terminator Salvation’ — Spoiler Alert Discussion

Posted on May 26, 2009 at 9:39 pm

I love the Slate Spoiler Specials, discussions of movies for you to listen to on the way home from the theater. Because they allow the participants to include spoilers in the conversation, they are more satisfying than a review can be. I’d love to invite my readers to have a spoiler-permitted discussion as well. If you like, listen to the Slate spoiler specials on Star Trek and Terminator Salvation first if you like, and then weigh in with your comments, questions, criticisms, and spoiler-filled thoughts. I’d love to hear from you and will add a few of my own. Beware, though — do not read until you’ve seen the films.

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Spoiler Alert
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