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July 29th, 2010

Robert Duvall discusses his new film, Get Low, as well as The Apostle, his career and upcoming projects with Fr. Dave Dwyer.

To listen to and/or download the podcast of the interview, click here.

July 22nd, 2010

This weekend’s smash hit Inception is the latest in a string of strong, mind-bending mediations on the nature of reality in the vein of The Matrix, Dark City and Memento. The film focuses on Dom Cobb, a man whose job it is to enter a person’s dream and steal information from his subconscious. As the film progresses, Cobb and his team members — and those of us in the audience — begin to lose grip on exactly what is real and what is a dream. In our own world, the digital landscape provides us with many alternatives to reality: television, video games, and the many role-playing websites the internet offers. These technologies can bring attention to an important world issue, send vacation pictures, distribute pornography, or even organize terrorism. In this Thinking Out Loud, the Busted Halo interns discuss how Inception gives us a mirror through which to look at these modern technologies and how they affect and inform our faith.

July 11th, 2010

donna-freitas-inside1

Donna Freitas is best known for her provocative nonfiction book Sex and the Soul, which was based on scores of interviews she conducted with college-age students about “sexuality, spirituality, romance and religion on America’s college campuses.” Beyond her work as a scholar and college religion professor, however, Frietas has forged a parallel career as a novelist. Her first novel, The Possibilities of Sainthood earned accolades in the Young Adult fiction genre back in 2008. Her most recent novel This Gorgeous Game tackles an unusual theme: a Catholic priest stalking a teenage girl. In the midst of a new wave of accusations of sexual abuse coming from Europe, Freitas’ work tragically resonates beyond the lives of her characters.

Sr. Bernadette: Being a previously published author of nonfiction, did fiction writing flow out of your work on Sex and the Soul, or was that something that you had always wanted to do?

Donna Freitas: One of the typical questions that I get when I’m on a panel is, “So when did you know that you wanted to write novels?” And half the time the people are saying, “When I was 5,” or, “When I was in seventh grade,” and I’m like, “I don’t know — when I was 30?” I never thought that I’d write fiction. I mostly started it one day for fun because I thought of a character. I’m a huge reader, so I’m constantly reading novels. But it never occurred to me that I was capable of writing a novel. It was when my mother died and I was really, really sad for a really long time after she died. That’s when I started writing fiction. I thought of this funny character and she was amusing me. Her voice was really strong in my head and I just thought to start writing her story because it made me happy in a really sad time, and it turned into a novel.

Sr. B: But the joy of being a

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July 10th, 2010

Bob Sheppard, the longtime Voice of Yankee Stadium died this week at the age of 99. Sheppard’s majestic elocution gave players and spectators goosebumps for over half a century. Sheppard was also devout in his Catholic faith and he was kind enough to offer Senior Editor Mike Hayes an interview about both his faith and his career as he tried to return to the public address booth after an undisclosed illness. Sadly, he would never make it back. We’re reprinting our interview here. You can also hear the full audio version of the interview here on a Busted Halo Cast.

Anyone who has attended a Yankee’s home game since the mid-twentieth century has been greeted by the unique—and now legendary—style of player introductions given over the stadium’s public address system:

Now batting for the Yankees… Number 2… the shortstop… Derek… Jeter.. Number 2.

For over 57 years, Bob Sheppard’s honeyed baritone has been echoing throughout the “The House that Ruth Built,” which means that Sheppard has introduced legends like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Thurman Munson. From Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 and Reggie Jackson’s magical three World Series homers in 1977 to Joe Torre’s dynasty throughout the late 90s— Sheppard has seen it all.

If sports, as it is often said, have become a religion for many Americans, Yankee Stadium is certainly baseball’s great Cathedral and Sheppard—as Reggie Jackson once dubbed him—is the Voice of God inside it. For decades, his distinctive style of announcing has added a greater sense of reverence and grace to games there. It should come as no surprise then that Sheppard is also a man of deep faith: a devout Catholic all his life who receives communion daily and has a daughter who became a nun.

With the Help of God

In 2007, Sheppard, who doesn’t publicize his age (although Busted Halo® sources report that he is 98!) was unable to finish announcing the season due to a severe illness. For the first time in his storied career the man whose microphone is

June 22nd, 2010

worldcup-flash

For me, the World Cup intimates something of what God is and can be for us. The principle guiding our getting together and enjoying life. The meaning of our days. The joy of our victories and our consoler in defeat. If, as St. Ignatius taught, we should seek God in all things and God wants to be with the people of earth, then He has to be at the World Cup in South Africa this summer. Look for Him there.

It was 1982. I was teaching an English class of fifty primeros (high school freshmen) at Colegio San Mateo, the Jesuit school in Osorno, Chile, deep in the South of that beautiful country. Class was rolling along. The Chilean kids were always respectful and well behaved. Suddenly, they all just started standing up and walking out the classroom door. I stood there confused. What was going on?

Don’t know how I missed the memo. All anyone had been talking about for days was “La Copa.” The whole school was heading for the cafeteria to watch Chile play Austria in Spain. The 600 kids in the high school gathered around a small 19-inch TV. You heard more than saw the game. The whole school, faculty, staff and students, was glued to that screen and the announcer’s voice. I had seen my hometown Philadelphia’s frenzied fans all my life (and no, we don’t throw batteries, at least not often, and the snowballs and Santa incident has been blown way out of proportion) but Philly’s fanatics could not compare to the pulsating energy in that room in Chile. The vibe was radical. It went to the roots of human hearts and souls. I was hooked.

In that game, Carlos Caszely missed a penalty kick against Austria, an event in Chilean sport’s history that makes Bill Buckner’s booting the ball in the 1986 World Series seem inconsequential. When Caszely blew it, the Chilean kids were devastated. You would have thought Caszely — one of Chile’s greatest players — had killed their grandmothers and then stolen their

June 15th, 2010

With the release last week of Lady Gaga’s controversial new video “Alejandro,” USA Today called upon BH’s editor-in-chief Bill McGarvey to offer his opinion on whether the video’s treatment of Catholicism was offensive. Read his response here.

Take a look at the video yourself right now and let us know your opinion by clicking here and taking our survey:

May 14th, 2010

southpark-flash

On April 14, Comedy Central’s “South Park” celebrated its 200th episode of “take no prisoners” animated comedy by dressing up the Prophet Mohammed in a bear suit. (It’s a long story…)

Unlike most of their show business rivals, when South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone say everyone is fair game for ridicule, they mean it. The religiously themed episode targeted Moses, Jesus, Mormon patriarch Joseph Smith and the Buddha.

Then, parodying the disputed Islamic dictum that forbids the depiction of its holiest prophet, Stone and Parker showed Muhammad dressed in a bear costume. (Perhaps this was a nod to the British teacher working abroad who was sentenced to death for naming the classroom teddy bear “Muhammad” — at the behest of her (Muslim) students.

The next day, a seemingly tiny group with the grandiose name “Revolution Muslim” (and led by a young convert from Judaism, no less) announced on its web site:

“We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid, and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”

(Theo van Gogh is the iconoclastic Dutch filmmaker who was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam in broad daylight by an Islamic militant, after making a film depicting the abuse of women in Muslim countries.)

Stone and Parker then told the media that Comedy Central had censored the show. That episode was supposed to end with a speech challenging “intimidation and fear,” but the speech was cut, presumably on account of fear and intimidation.

I’m not inclined to defend South Park. On the whole, the show is tasteless, offensive and not something I would ever allow my children to watch.

However, I do defend Parker and Stone’s right to free speech, even if — especially if — I don’t like what they are saying. (Without that coda, as Voltaire recognized, the very principle has no meaning.)

In my latest

April 23rd, 2010

reallifesuperheroes-inside

They call me the “Comic Book Rabbi.” Given the chance to choose my own “superhero” nickname, I’d have picked something more dynamic, like “Super Jew” or simply “The Rabbi.” (Imagine The Thing, but with a kippah.) I come by my humble nickname honestly, though. My first book was called, Up Up and Oy Vey : How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero. Not surprisingly, I quickly came to be seen as an expert about the Jewish influence on American popular culture.

Most of the time, I study these matters at arm’s length — literally, with a well-thumbed issue of the Fantastic Four circa 1964 in hand. However, I confess (and that’s not something rabbis normally do) that I sometimes fantasize about doing more than writing and talking about superheroes. Like millions of ordinary people, I wonder what it would be like to pull on some Spandex, then hit the mean streets and kick some villainous tuchas.

No wonder the new movie Kick-Ass is getting so much buzz. The film, based on the 2008 graphic novel by Mark Millar, tells the story of teenage dweeb Dave Lizewski, who sets out to become a real-life superhero. Like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and the other members of the tribe who created “Golden Age” superheroes like Superman, Lizewski is a bit of a nerd, invisible to girls and the “cool” kids. So he creates his own superhero costume, dubs himself “Kick-Ass” and goes out in search of bad guys to beat up.


Predictably, Dave fails at his first attempt to fight crime. He discovers that, unlike the fights he’s seen in the movies, real fisticuffs can actually be pretty painful. After being recorded in action by bystanders with cell phones, Dave/Kick-Ass becomes an internet phenomenon that inspires a whole legion of copycat costumed crime fighters, including a foul-mouthed 11-year-old named Hit Girl. Meanwhile, Dave sets up a Kick-Ass website and is soon overwhelmed by requests for help from total strangers.

Real life superheroes

April 15th, 2010

bazanpt2-flash

Last week, we published a piece by Matt Fink about former Pedro the Lion leader David Bazan’s career and latest album. After a four-year hiatus following struggles with alcoholism and his faith — including being kicked off the main stage of a major Christian music festival — Bazan returned in 2009 with a new autobiographical and starkly agnostic album.

In the following interview, Fink talks with Bazan about his return to the Cornerstone Festival last summer, the latest album, the reactions to recent work, and his current take on faith and his role as an artist.

Busted Halo: I saw that you went back and played Cornerstone this year. What was that like?

David Bazan: It was actually great. I had said “yes,” and I was happy to be going back on a lot of levels, but I was a little… concerned. I was maybe anticipating being the center of controversy in a way that I was ultimately pretty glad that I wasn’t, in my estimation. When I was there, it felt really nice. I felt like I was on the same team as a lot of people. It wasn’t a super big deal. So that was cool. That other thing is kind of exhausting, I feel. It’s just unnecessary. People make such a big deal out of some stuff. And certainly there were discussions about controversial issues and whatever, but I wasn’t any different as a participant in those discussions. I wasn’t put on some kind of pedestal in any way that was uncomfortable, so it was good. It was really nice.

BH: Were you surprised that that offer came to play Cornerstone again?

DB: Well… it had, at least, come one year before that, if not two years before that. I can’t remember exactly. I had at least turned down one. But I was a little surprised, even then. And having read the Chicago Reader piece that Jessica Hopper wrote, I did not know that that was John Herrin’s take on the whole thing. I

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April 12th, 2010

Spirituality-@-SXSW

The following post is a continuation of Busted Halo’s coverage of the 2010 South By Southwest festival.

Is being a faithful person a lot like being a slacker? And if so, where does that leave the faithful in life? A new indie film, “The Happy Poet,” made me wonder. This charming little story debuted at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, and I’ve been mulling it ever since.

Because the movie was shot to simple effect in my much-loved city of Austin, it was especially easy to imagine this scenario playing out in real life: Young guy, out of work but needing to make some sort of living, buys a food cart and sets it up in a park. He puts his heart into it, tenderly hand-making and selling every sandwich and snack himself.

The cart was designed to be a hot dog stand, but this “Happy Poet” (Bill, a thirtysomething would-be creative writer), is a little more New Age-y in his dreams for it. He styles it as an “all organic, mostly vegetarian” stand, with idiosyncratic offerings like eggless egg salad.

Now, Bill doesn’t market test this or anything. He’s not a sharp business mind, or organized or ambitious or a go-getter. He doesn’t care about advertising, or making money — his simply takes pleasure in making people healthy food, day by day. And even though he can hardly afford to, he gives his food away freely. He’s the kind of person lots of us would term a slacker.

Attracted by both Bill’s generosity and his laid-back attitude, other people start hanging around the stand. There’s Donnie, who starts doing sandwich deliveries for the little business — but uses the rounds as an outlet for selling weed. Slyly, he seems to take a too-large cut of what he earns on the sandwiches to boot. And then there’s Curtis, an enigmatic yogi who Bill believes is homeless and feeds every day. Turns out Curtis has a lakeside mansion and plenty of money, …

April 8th, 2010

bazanpt1-flash

In the spring of 2007, I was asked as an alumnus of Geneva College (a small Reformed Presbyterian liberal arts college 30 minutes northwest of Pittsburgh, PA) to attend a few planning sessions for that semester’s annual music event. Knowing Geneva’s conservative stance on nearly every theological or cultural issue, from the prohibition of instruments in their church services to the ban on all dancing (save square dancing) on campus, the challenge was selecting an artist who would be edgy enough to attract the interest of the students while being safe enough not to draw the ire of the school’s administration. Half-jokingly, I suggested that David Bazan might be an interesting choice for this concert, and I had ample evidence to believe that “interesting” was far too innocent a word for what that invitation could yield. A few months later, when Bazan was officially added to the evening’s bill, I was afraid that my misguided attempt at humor could derail the entire night’s entertainment.

Two years earlier, I had attended Calvin College’s “Festival of Faith and Music,” a semi-annual conference where Christian musicians, artists, and authors congregate for a sophisticated discussion of the role faith and art should play in American society. Bazan was scheduled to perform, along with independent Christian artists Sufjan Stevens, Danielson, Half-handed Cloud and others. The booking of Bazan demonstrated his considerable pull within evangelical circles. If Calvin wanted to use the festival to inspire debate and discussion that would last far beyond the moment the last song ended, they couldn’t have made a better choice.

Taking the stage alone with an acoustic guitar, having recently dissolved Pedro the Lion, the band he had started ten years earlier in Seattle after graduating from a tiny Pentecostal liberal arts college, Bazan wasted no time in making his presence known. Opening with “Redneck Nation,” a song excoriating those who found catharsis in exacting revenge for 9/11 on Arabs through the Iraq War, Bazan set the tone for a performance that only grew in intensity. Before he was done, he

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March 22nd, 2010

MaryKarr-inside2

Considering the harrowing stories of her Texas youth — plagued by the alcohol, drugs, violence and general mayhem she recounted in The Liars’ Club (1995) and Cherry (2000) — it is a minor miracle that Mary Karr lived to tell her tale. The fact that she still has more stories of tumult and survival as an adult to write about, though, really begins to edge into loaves and fishes territory.

In her third memoir, Lit, Karr moves past her “drug sodden” adolescence into her young adulthood where the joys of falling in love, getting married and becoming a mother are overwhelmed by her debilitating alcoholism, depression and family dysfunction. But Lit isn’t simply a catalog of grinding desperation and addiction. Karr combines a poet’s eye for extraordinary detail and tone — she was a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry — with an earthy honesty and humor to create prose that is beautiful, unadorned and filled with a survivor’s wisdom. Lit is Karr’s testimony to the actual, ongoing miracle in her own life: her conversion from devoted cynic to devout Catholic.

In the interview that follows, Karr discusses the difficulties she encountered in writing about alcoholism, sobriety and spirituality as well as her stormy relationship with a young David Foster Wallace and some hard-won advice for spiritual seekers.

Busted Halo: I’ve read that it was really hard for you to write Lit, and you almost gave up on it?

Mary Karr: I had a gun to my head; I was four years late. They gave me a lot of money… I turned down money. They offered me a hefty advance — two different publishers in 2000. And I turned it down, and that was a prayer thing. And I know, everybody said, “You’re kid is older. You’ll have the time. You need the money.” And I really just had a feeling it was a bad thing and I turned it down. And then three years later I got this idea of how to write about prayer and my son and

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March 2nd, 2010

oscarpodcast2010-flashYou’d think they would have given Up by now. After two consecutive years of getting An Education in Oscar prognosticating, Fr. Jim Martin SJ and Tim Reidy — the Precious cinephiles at America magazine, the national Catholic weekly run by the Jesuits — asked to go head-to-head for a third round with BustedHalo.com’s editor-in-chief Bill McGarvey on the year’s Best Picture nominees. The Inglourious Basterds at America are well aware that McGarvey is A Serious Man when it comes to film, so they can’t claim to have been Blind Sided.

As the following two-part podcast makes clear, picking Oscar winners is no game to McGarvey. He made it painfully clear to his opponents before taping began that this was not a simulation, there were no Avatars his foes could hide behind to bear the brunt of shame they would feel when McGarvey smote their snot-nose opinions once again.

“We aren’t in high school anymore.” he reminded them. “You can’t go cry into your Hurt Locker in the hall like when you lost at Dungeons and Dragons in the District 9 finals.” Hear for yourself at Americas podcast page (click for part 1 and part 2). If you listen closely you might even detect the faint sound of weeping as the crushing reality of total conquest finally begins to sink in once again.

Come on guys, did you ever really think the outcome was Up in the Air?
oscarpodcast2010-inside2

March 1st, 2010

GeorgeCarlin-inside-a

When George Carlin died in 2008 at the age of 71, American comedy lost one of the sharpest and truest voices it had ever known. Over five decades, Carlin forged a body of work that is awe-inspiring in terms of its breadth, intelligence and relevance.  The Irish Catholic kid from Corpus Christi parish in Harlem–with barely more than a year of high school education–combined his own fierce and fearlessly questioning mind with the lessons he’d learned on the streets of New York to craft comedy that made audiences laugh and challenged them to think. Beginning in the mid 1990s, bestselling author and actor Tony Hendra (Fr. Joe, Spinal Tap) recorded countless hours of conversation with Carlin for a planned “sortabiography.” In the interview that follows, Hendra discusses his subject’s unique career and how–though Carlin rejected the Catholicism of his youth, the questioning, scholastic model of inquiry taught by the nuns in elementary school informed his own search for meaning and coherence for his entire life.

Busted Halo: Carlin’s evolution as a comic is pretty phenomenal. There was this constant sense in the book of the artist at work on his craft. It’s hard to stay around for two years or five years. It’s unheard of to be around and relevant for almost fifty years. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Tony Hendra: Well just from the point of craft; when we first sat down in the mid-90s, to do our first conversations (we never really did interviews) about comedy, he made it very clear that he didn’t want to do an autobiography; he didn’t want to do a memoir. But what he did want to do — and he was very clear about this — he wanted to do the ‘Story of My Art.’ How he got from where he started to where he ended up, and that’s all he really wanted in the book. And at first, the editor side of me said, “This may get rather tedious,” and so

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February 18th, 2010

tuckeverlasting-inside

For Kathleen Erin Daly

The outside cover of Natalie Babbit’s 1975 novel Tuck Everlasting poses just one question — what would you do if you could live forever?

I asked myself this very question in1982, a complicated time when I was ten and on an impossible mission to understand not only death, but the litany of unanswerable questions that the subject brought forth: “What happens when you die?” “Why do some people die at age 4 and others get to live to 105?” and perhaps the most elusive, “What is the point of being born at all if only to one day die?” Beginning on January 11, 1982, this quest consumed me. To say that 1982 was the proverbial “winter of my discontent” would be an understatement. That winter, in the span of six short weeks, three very significant people in my childhood died early deaths. Each of them had been a person I associated in one way or another with my identity and my place in the world: my grandmother Laura, my parents’ friend Fr. Henry Tansey, and my 17-year-old babysitter and friend Kathleen.

Laura Anne Monaco, in short: one of nine children born to Italian immigrants, her father died when hit by a train when she was nine, the valedictorian of her high-school class, dumped a boring boyfriend (in the 1930s it was unheard of for a woman to do this) to marry the love of her life, my grandfather, a railroad worker, union organizer, and self-proclaimed “hell-raiser.” They married and raised my mom and her sister on a farm in South Bethlehem, NY; my grandmother single-handedly ran Monaco’s country store while my grandfather worked on the emerging railroad. She was known for giving away most of the store for free to local farmers and neighbors; the delights included Borden’s ice cream, coffee and her annual Christmas fruitcake. In 1975, she was told that her cancer was terminal. She lived seven more years, during which time she taught me how to read, ride my first bike, speak conversational Italian, cook

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January 19th, 2010

FamilyGoy-inside

A ventriloquist’s cartoonish dummy can vocalize insults that would earn the ventriloquist himself a punch in the nose. In much the same way, on “harmless looking” adult animated comedy shows humorists can get away with things they never could on a live-action program.

As a rabbi with a lifelong passion for comedy, I often find myself torn between my love of a good (or even a bad!) joke, and reverence for my religious beliefs. The TV program that challenges my sensibilities the most is probably The Family Guy.

A recent episode of the notorious and unfailingly offensive show — called “Family Goy” — skewered a host of clichés with even more blatant disregard for propriety than usual.

In that episode, Lois, the mom on the show, discovers that her mother, Barbara Pewterschmidt, is a Holocaust survivor who had later renounced her Judaism — to help her husband get into country clubs. (“It was the right thing to do, dear,” says Mrs. Pewterschmidt ).

“So Grandma Hebrewberg is actually Jewish?!” exclaims Lois.

“Yes,” her mother explains. “When she moved to America, her family changed their name. It was originally Hebrewbergmoneygrabber.”

“Family Goy” includes the return of Jewish accountant Max Weinstein, the popular mensch character from a well-known earlier episode called “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein.”

The newer script, written by Mark Hentemann, takes a few dark, mean-spirited turns.

At first, Peter embraces his wife’s Jewish heritage, going so far as donning a tallit, kippah and Star of David necklace (chest hair included). He even adopts a Hebrew name that is nothing more than a long guttural “chchchchchch” sound.

When Lois objects, Peter kvetches: “Leave it to a Jew to take all the fun out of being a Jew.”

A dark, mean-spirited turn

Peter is then visited by the ghost of his father Francis, who warns him that he will go to hell for renouncing his (nominal) Catholicism. Sure enough, the next day, Peter turns anti-Semitic. That is, he attempts to shoot Lois with a sniper rifle!

Incredibly, Peter is purposely emulating Amon Leopold Göth, the Plaszów concentration camp commandant featured

December 31st, 2009

royedisney-inside

Did any among us not grow up with Disney? Children of the 40s marked their years with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. For boomers, it was Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and Jungle Book. By the time I came along, Disney’s animated features had lost their spark. But my family gathered around the family TV set every Sunday night at 7:30 to watch The Wonderful World of Disney — a collection of animation, feature movies, TV dramas and nature documentaries. This brew, rich on American stories like Davey Crockett, helped shape my worldview. For children of the 80s and 90s, Disney animated feature films returned to the forefront and for this we have one person to thank: Disney’s keeper of the faith, Roy E. Disney.

Twice when Disney the corporation drifted away from its basic mission, Roy E. Disney, son of Walt’s brother, Roy O., has stepped in like a prophet to remind them of what matters.

Though his father was CEO and president of Disney until his death, Roy E. was never given control, and held only one percent of the company stock. He did have an executive title and a seat on the board of directors, though, and after Walt’s death in the mid-60s, then through the 70s and early 80s, he watched as Disney Corp. drifted away from its roots. The board’s focus on high-yield activities and careful protection of capital had turned Disney into what Roy E. once called a real estate holding company that happened to make movies.

Fed up, in 1977 Roy resigned his executive position, and then in 1984, he dramatically quit the board, signaling to investors and analysts his lack of confidence in the company’s leadership under Walt Disney’s son-in-law. Roy and other major shareholders brought in Michael Eisner, head of Paramount Pictures, to replace him, and Roy returned as vice-chairman and head of the animation division.

Disney’s animation renaissance

While Eisner knew little about animation and

December 31st, 2009

Also check out the latest Busted Halo Cast about Frank McCourt.

mccourt-flash

Deanna, my ex-girlfriend, grew up in Boston. Recalling her early home life, she would sing a litany of parental neglect, substance abuse and financial mismanagement. Apparently, the one bright moment came when she saw one of her friends break most of her toes in a step-dancing accident.

I envied her. She would never have to search for her Irishness.

My own connection with the land of St. Brigid and Molly Bloom was much more tenuous. My mother’s family had left it sometime before the outbreak of the American Civil War. My father’s family, consisting of Polish and Ukrainian Jews, never made it there in the first place. Reaching backward across the Atlantic forced me to build my own bridge. Being the product of my adolescent tastes, it was, of course, a bridge of kitsch, with Pogues music serving as the piers and Cagney movies as the planks. By the time I reached my twenties, I found the structure so shameful and ungainly that I abandoned it. Later, when I saw M.C. Everlast, House of Pain’s L.A.-raised front man, flash his pro-IRA tattoo to an MTV reporter, I thought: There but for the grace of God go I.

Angela’s Ashes — McCourt’s memoir about moving from Brooklyn to Limerick, and finding nothing but superstition, starvation and bad weather — found me in a skeptical and unforgiving mood. My mother had thrust it upon me as airplane reading when I left to study in Moscow, during the summer of 1997. It stayed in my duffel bag. The jacket photo, which featured a barefooted urchin sporting a jaunty grin, somehow reminded me of The Commitments and every other piece of twaddle designed to produce plastic Paddies of the type I’d narrowly avoided becoming.

But after three weeks, the strain of thinking in Russian, with its three genders, six cases and perfective and imperfective moods had me crying for twaddle. One rainy afternoon I gave in and cracked it. Only those who have experienced the …

December 31st, 2009

Hallett during better times

I love a good rags-to-riches story. A vampire spin-off is not the usual definition of riches, but for the millions of people who love the Buffyverse, Andy Hallett was a success.

Hallett started his career in Los Angeles as Joss Whedon’s wife’s personal assistant. For those who don’t know, Joss Whedon was the writer, creator and driving force behind the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly — series known for being equal parts camp and brilliant writing.

After Whedon and friends went to see Hallett sing at B.B. King’s in Los Angeles, Whedon conceived of an Angel character written just for Hallett. The character was Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan; a green demon with scaly skin and red horns. However, Whedon never lets first impressions determine what a fictional character can do. (Remember that preternaturally strong teenage Buffy Summers?) Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan, or Lorne, could read a person’s thoughts and future when hearing them sing karaoke. With that gift he helped Angel, the vampire with a soul, save lives.

Mostly, Hallett’s Lorne made it easier to deal with subject matter like the end of the world or a broken heart. It is difficult for an actor to embody a character so well that audiences can’t help but smile; Andy Hallett did that while singing Aretha Franklin, on pitch, again and again.

At 33, he died of a heart condition.

December 31st, 2009

swayze-inside

There are some famous people that seem so kind and so genuine that I am glad they are somewhere in the world. I don’t need to meet them or visit their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I just want to know they exist in the madhouse of entertainment and keep their heads while doing it. For me, Patrick Swayze was one of those famous people.

Like all Americans raised in the 1980s, watching Dirty Dancing, The Outsiders or Red Dawn every weekend on basic cable provided cinematic life lessons. The Brat Pack taught me many things: detention is determined by the group of people you are detained with; and dancing makes all ages, races and classes happy.

Later in my life, however, Patrick Swayze the man taught me something different: a death sentence isn’t necessarily the end. Swayze starred in a television series (The Beast on A&E) with many strikes against him. He was a has-been, and he had a barely treatable form of pancreatic cancer. Yet, he was making his entertainment dreams come true. He didn’t have the physical strength to promote the show but he was back on my Panasonic screen once a week.

Perhaps, he should have stayed home and stopped working because of the diagnosis. No one would have blamed him. For all intents and purposes he was a dying man.

I don’t know what it takes to live with a terminal illness and not want to throw in the towel. But I do know what it’s like to see one of my heroes — while dying — become a stronger version of who I had imagined him to be.

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