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Ushpizin: A Movie for Sukkot

Posted on September 22, 2010 at 8:00 am

Ushpizin is a quietly moving drama set in an almost-unseen world. It takes place in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem during the fall holiday of Sukkot, which falls this year on Sept 22-29. During Sukkot, families build tabernacles called sukkahs out of organic materials and decorate them with harvest fruits and vegetables to celebrate and give thanks for the bounty of the season. Observant Jews eat their meals and sometimes even sleep in these huts, which have their roofs open so that the people inside can see the stars.

“Ushpizin” was made by the formerly secular actor Shuli Rand, who is now a part of the community where it was made, and which has never been shown on film before. Because of the restrictions on male-female contact in the Orthodox community, Rand’s wife had to play his character’s wife. Even though she had not acted professionally before, her performance is one of the movie’s highlights. She immediately engages our interest and her sweet sincerity makes her utterly captivating.

Rand plays Moshe Bellanga, a Hasidic Jew who is married to Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand). They are devoted to each other and to their religious practice, but very poor. They are not even able to pay their landlord. And then a miracle happens. Through an American charity, they receive a special grant of $1000. Moshe’s religious dedication is so passionate that instead of spending the money on their daily necessities, he wants to use it to realize his dream. A part of the celebration of Sukkot is the waving of the lulav (a palm frond) and the etrog (a lemon-like citrus fruit), and the freshest and most beautiful specimens are sought after. Moshe dreams of a truly magnificent etrog, and this money makes that possible.

Meanwhile, some friends from Moshe’s past life arrive. He warmly welcomes them and invites them to stay in his sukkah, not realizing, or not caring, that they are thieves running from the law. The title of the film is an Aramaic term for “guests.”

The glimpses of life in this community are as interesting as the story, which unfolds in a direction that differs from the usual movie conventions of order being confronted by chaos. It is a tender, touching, and inspiring story of love, faith, and genuine goodness.

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Drama Holidays Spiritual films

Law Abiding Citizen

Posted on February 3, 2010 at 8:00 am

This is not just a bad film; it is a despicable one. The slim but highly profitable torture porn genre has now begun to permeate major studio films directed at a general audience and the result is this dim-witted thriller that purports to have some legitimacy beyond serving as an excuse for full-on butchery. It does not. This is the “Saw”-ification of mainstream films.

Clyde (Gerard Butler of “300” and “Phantom of the Opera”) is quickly and very briefly established as a loving husband and father and then five minutes into the film two intruders come into the house, knock him out, and rape and murder his wife and little girl. Later, a slick prosecutor named Nick (Jamie Foxx) makes a deal that gives the worst of the two offenders a reduced sentence while his partner is sentenced to death. The execution goes wrong and the death is agonizingly painful. And the other offender, released from prison, is captured and subjected to excruciating torture (described in excruciating detail) before he, too, is killed. It turns out that Clyde has not just a motive for revenge; as a former highly trained government operative, he has the means. And he is just beginning.

It is supposed to be an intriguing cat-and-mouse game, but the fun of those stories is putting together the pieces of the puzzle and seeing the bad guy out-smarted. But there is nothing smart here, much less out-smart. The screenplay is so lazy that it cannot even decide who Nick works for, the District Attorney (local), the Justice Department (federal), or both. He also seems to be moonlighting as a detective, leaving the courtroom behind as he races into dark buildings without calling for any back-up. Because Clyde’s character has suffered so profoundly and the bad guys are so over-the-top despicable, we are supposed to find some satisfaction in their hideously painful deaths. But we’re supposed to be on Nick’s side, too. He may be a little too slick, but when the body count starts to pile up and Clyde threatens to kill “everyone,” we’re back on the side of law enforcement, previously portrayed as ineffectual and pragmatic to the point of moral compromise.

Revenge is such a reliable plot engine that it is hard to mess it up. Think of the purity of the first “Kill Bill.” But in this film, the details of the torture as entertainment, the sheer pointless excess of the carnage in the context of what purports to be a drama, and then the literal over-the-top ending that once again undercuts everything we have been asked to believe is more than exploitative; it is depraved. Viola Davis adds some class and dignity to the film as the frustrated mayor, like a visitor from another film, maybe another world. But then we are back to the phony sanctimoniousness of this film, with its final insults the idea that even upholders of the law are entitled to cause massive destruction and put lives at risk for payback and that all of this carnage is justified as a reminder to be a better daddy.

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Action/Adventure Crime Drama

The Christians: The History of Christianity and Its Global Impact

Posted on November 2, 2009 at 9:58 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: NR
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Mild
Violence/ Scariness: References to martyrs and murders
Diversity Issues: A theme of the series
Date Released to DVD: November 3, 2009

Filmed on location in more than 30 countries, this 13-episode series covers the history of Christianity from the time of Jesus through “two thousand years of persecution, politics, and power.” This DVD set has extras as well: a new introductory segment by host Bamber Gascoigne, a 16-page viewer’s guide with highlights, questions to consider, avenues for further learning, a timeline, and more, The Cultures of the Cross and Christ in Art photo galleries, and Architects of the Faith, select bios of people influential to Christianity. This is Christianity as a historical force, its highs (acts of sacrifice and compassion, learning, great works of art and architecture) and its lows (persecution and atrocities). It covers the largest and oldest denominations, and the briefest off-shoots, the unchanging traditions and the agile adaptations, the controversies and the conflicts.

I have one set to give away to the first person who sends me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with the word “Christians” in the subject line. Good luck!

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Documentary DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Spiritual films

Fired Up

Posted on June 9, 2009 at 8:00 am

Yes, this is a dumb little teen sex comedy that repeatedly tries to generate hilarity with a cheer involving the initials of its title. Yes, it spends a lot of camera time focusing on tight little shorts on tight little tushes. Yes, it tries for the best of both worlds by presenting us with heroes who are major playas for most of the film with some lessons learned and spiritually enlarging experiences just in time for (and during) the closing credits. Yes, the high school junior heroes are played by actors who are at least a decade older than their characters. But as dumb little teen sex comedies go, this one could have been a lot worse.
Shawn (Nicholas D’Agosto) and Nick (Eric Christian Olsen) have just one goal — to get with as many lovely young ladies as possible as frequently as possible. Very effective singly, they are all but unstoppable with each other as wingmen. When it is time to go to El Paso for football training camp, they decide that rather than go to hot, dry, girl-free Texas they will instead go where the girls are, cheerleading camp. Though the camp is three weeks long, they plan to leave early to spend time at a friend’s vacation home.
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Carly (Sarah Roemer), the captain of the cheerleaders, is a very attractive girl who is unprecedentedly impervious to Nick’s charm (and also impervious to the obnoxiousness of her pretentious boyfriend). Shawn does very well with the cheerleaders but increasingly finds himself attracted to the co-cheerleader coach (Milly Sims), even though she is married to her co-coach (Michael John Higgins, born to do spirit fingers) and, in his word, “old.” While Shawn and Nick are focused on getting as much as they can from as many girls as they can, the girls are focused on competing with the champion Panthers.
No surprises along the way — except perhaps how poorly the cheerleading routines are photographed and how much you can get away with in a PG-13 movie — but D’Agosto and Olsen have an easy rhythm and the movie wisely makes their comeuppances more sweet than humiliating. Its attempts to temper its homophobic humor are weak. But it nicely makes the point that the girls who get a boy’s attention and respect are those who respect themselves enough to insist on trust and affection before they will get involved.

(more…)

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Comedy

Bolt

Posted on March 24, 2009 at 8:00 am

Bolt (voice of John Travolta) thinks he is a super-dog. He and his “person,” Penny (voice of Miley Cyrus) spend their days battling the evil, green-eyed Dr. Calico (voice of Malcolm McDowell), who has captured Penny’s scientist father and has a lair defended by dozens of black-clad henchmen. Thank goodness for Bolt’s loyalty and courage and for his thunderous super-bark and heat vision, too!

But what Bolt doesn’t know is that none of this is real. He’s an actor on a television show and his “superpowers” are special effects. The director insists that Bolt must believe that it is all really happening in order to make his performance, well, believable. “If the dog believes it,” he explains condescendingly to “Mindy from the network,” “the audience believes it.”

Bolt accidentally gets shipped to New York, and for the first time finds out what the real world is like — and what he is really like, too. Even without the super-bark and the steel-melting stare, he has to find his way back to Penny.

This feels like a transitional film, as Pixar takes over Disney animation, and the seams show. Bolt is a likable character, but bland next to those around him, especially the pigeons, who deserve much more screen time, and those who accompany him on his road trip, a scraggly cat (voice of Susie Essman of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and an excitable hamster (animator Mark Walton). Bolt’s dilemma may be confusing to younger children who are still unclear with their own notions of what is real and what is pretend and may not be interested in the problems of a child star with a pushy agent. But in its best moments, it gently shows us how Bolt’s discoveries parallel those of a child in learning self-reliance.

Children have an ever-evolving sense of what is real and what is pretend. Developmental psychologists believe that it is not until age nine or even older that they are sure about whether what they see in movies and television is really true and still engage in “magical thinking” that parents can approve of (that Santa lives in the North Pole) and that is more troubling (that they caused parental discord or separation). Being able to repeat “it’s only pretend” does not mean that they understand what it means. “Bolt” is a movie that reflects this aspect of childhood.

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