This third version of the story of a hijacked New York subway car may be superfluous but it still delivers some zip thanks to Tony Scott’s music-video flash and even a bit of heft thanks to Denzel Washington.
The 1974 version had Robert Shaw (“Jaws,” “The Sting”) as the leader of a group of trigger-happy thugs and a bitter ex-subway motorman and Walter Matthau as the transit cop working for the safe return of the hostages. The film’s great strengths were its nicely twisty plot, its superb cast of character actors (including Jerry Stiller), and its gritty feel for the city at a time of great economic turmoil and municipal decay. Then there was a made-for-TV version in 1998 with Vincent D’Onofrio and Edward James Olmos. This time, it is updated for the era of cell phones, laptops, and failing financial markets. The leader of the hijackers is John Travolta, with a 70’s porn star mustache, a prison neck tattoo, and a whole lot of attitude. He starts out at the top of Mount CrazyAngry and pretty much stays there the whole time. At the other end of the phone is transit guy Garber (Denzel Washington), who has depth of expertise and some complications in his work situation.
Director Tony Scott knows how to deliver a cinematic adrenaline rush, and there are some impressive car crashes and chases. James Gandolfini is superb as the mayor, a cross between Giuliani and Bloomberg, and there are some nice up-to-the-minute touches for the era of cell phones, wifi, and Wall Street collapses. It sacrifices some of the original’s craftiest switch-ups for action but the biggest problem is that Travolta never really connects and Washington’s fully-realized portrayal of the troubled but heroic Garber makes even more obvious Travolta’s struggle to make his character work. Travolta may steal the subway car, but it is Washington who steals the movie.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with the word “Christians” in the subject line. Good luck!
In 2008, TED gave its annual award to Karen Armstrong, author of more than 20 books about what Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in common and their effect on world events. She is a former nun who now calls herself a “freelance monotheist.” Receipients of this prize receive $100,000 and “One Wish to Change the World.” Armstrong’s wish was for a compassion initiative:
“I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.”
The Charter for Compassion will be released later this month. But TED has posted six short videos of religious leaders with their thoughts on compassion and how to make the values of compassion a vital form of meaningful engagement. Watch these two and then go to the TED website to see the rest.
In honor of the World Series, take a look at this documentary about baseball star Hank Greenberg.
Brilliant documentary-maker Aviva Kempner has created a gem of a movie to lift the spirit of anyone who cares about baseball — or heroes.
Hank Greenberg was that rarest of sports stars, someone who was as good as his fans hoped he was — in fact, he was even better. Over and over, in this movie, we see accomplished, distinguished men get teary-eyed as they talk about how much Hank Greenberg meant to them when they were growing up. Senator Carl Levin said, “Because he was a hero, I was a little bit of a hero, too.” Lawyer-to-the-stars Alan Dershowitz says, “Baseball was our way of showing that we were as American as anyone else.”
“We” meant Jews. Hank Greenberg was not the first Jewish baseball player, but he was the first one to be proudly Jewish. He did not change his name and he did not hide his religion. He missed a day of the World Series to observe Yom Kippur (though he did play on Rosh Hashanah, thanks to a clearance from a rabbi who was a baseball fan). And he was a star. Dershowitz said, “He was what they said Jews could never be.”
Kempner combines stock footage and contemporary interviews with fans, friends, family, and teammates to give a glowing portrait of Greenberg, who died in 1986, and, as the title promises, of his era.
Greenberg faced a lot of prejudice. He played for the Detroit Tigers in a city whose leading citizen, Henry Ford, was a virulent anti-Semite. One of his teammates was a country boy who had never met a Jew before and literally expected Greenberg to have horns. But Greenberg never took it personally and never became bitter. He said that it made him work harder because if he failed, “I wasn’t a bum; I was a Jewish bum.” Not a religious or observant man, he was very aware of his role as a symbol, and, as a fan notes, “he wore his Jewishness on his sleeve and in his heart.” At the end of his career, he helped support another baseball player he perhaps understood better than anyone — Jackie Robinson.
Greenberg missed four seasons at the top of his career because he was serving in WWII. And at the end of his career he was impulsively traded by an owner who mistakenly thought he was thinking of leaving. He spoke of those incidents with regret, but without anger. One of the great treats of this movie is see not just how well Greenberg handled adversity, but how well he handled fame and success, remaining humble, honest, and dedicated through it all.
Perhaps most revealing of Greenberg’s character was the one statistic that he cared about, in this most statistic-ridden of sports — RBIs. He loved being the one who batted clean-up, “the guy that comes up at the clutch, changes the ball game, makes all the difference.” He could have gone for the home run record, but he was the ultimate team player.
His teammates and friends talk, also, about his dedication. He was the hardest-working of ball-players, paying anyone he could find to pitch to him for extra batting practice and even stripping down in a friend’s dress-making studio so he could examine his batting stance in a three-way mirror.
Parents should know that while younger kids might not understand the movie, there is nothing objectionable in it — and how many of today’s sports figures could inspire a documentary about which that statement could be made?
Families who see this movie should talk about America’s history of prejudice and about the different ways that people handle adversity — and success. Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, broadcast on PBS and available on video.