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Eartha Kitt, who died this week, was an electrifying performer. The warm reminiscences about her incendiary performances on and off-stage are as entertaining as the legendary actress/singer was herself. The Washington Post had Will Haygood’s hilarious recounting of the most expensive — and mesmerizing — lunch of his life. Entertainment Weekly has a piece about a recent cabaret performance by the still-flirty octogenarian .

The obituaries mentioned the spirited attack on our involvement in Viet Nam at a White House luncheon that led to controversy, headlines, and years of difficulty in getting booked. The highlights of her performing career that were most often mentioned were her appearances in nightclubs, her performance as Catwoman in the “Batman” television show, and her unforgettable recording of “Santa Baby.” But today I am remembering her perfect casting as the villain in one of Disney’s most under-appreciated films, The Emperor’s New Groove.

Before the year is out I’d like to mention some independent films that did not get much attention in 2008 but are worth a look. These are not easy to summarize because they don’t follow the usual formulas. Some of their messiness comes from a more authentic and complicated sense of the world, some comes from having a tiny budget and some comes from being new at the process of telling stories with film. But they include some of my favorite moments on screen this year.

Kabluey is the story of a hapless loser (writer/director Scott Prendergast) sent to help his over-stressed sister-in-law while his brother is stationed in Iraq. He gets a job of soul-crushing absurd pointlessness, standing on an all-but-deserted road in a suffocating costume, the logo of a failing business, handing out fliers that no one wants. The costume gets some unexpected reactions from the people he meets and he begins to think differently about the effect he has on people. This is not one of those heart-warming cuddle-fests but it has moments of piercing sweetness and unexpected hilarity.

Grace Is Gone John Cusack usually plays a hyper-verbal, high-strung character. But here, as a former soldier whose wife is killed in Iraq, he is someone who is so internal he cannot find the words to tell their two daughters what happened. He impulsively takes them on a road trip to a theme park. The two young actresses Shélan O’Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk, give beautifully sensitive performances and there is an evocative score written by Clint Eastwood.

“Lifelines” One of the most exquisite images on screen this year was the lovely face of the brilliantly talented Jane Adams, who plays Nancy, the mother of a profoundly dysfunctional family in this film from first-time writer-director Rob Margolies (and originally titled “Wherever You Are”). Nancy and Ira (Josh Pais) bring their three angry and bitter children to a therapist (the always-marvelous Joe Morton) for a big announcement. In private meetings with each of the children, there are revelations that in another film might seem showy or melodramatic but a sure hand from Margolies and some exceptional acting from talented performers keep us involved and caring. The final twist is a bit too much but it is the mistake of a talented beginner and I very much look forward to seeing what Margolies does next.

And thanks to Dustin Putman for introducing me to “Kabluey” and “Lifelines.”

Happy Hannukah!

The documentary The Black Candle: A Kwanzaa Celebration, narrated by Maya Angelou, uses the holiday of Kwanzaa to explore the African-American experience. The holiday was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana studies, as a way to recognize and celebrate the unique experience of African-Americans. Family, history, and culture are a part of the seven-day celebration that begins the day after Christmas. Each night a candle is lit to symbolize one of the principles of Kwanzaa:

* Umoja (oo-MO-jah) Unity stresses the importance of togetherness for the family and the community, which is reflected in the African saying, “I am We,” or “I am because We are.”
* Kujichagulia (koo-gee-cha-goo-LEE-yah) Self-Determination requires that we define our common interests and make decisions that are in the best interest of our family and community.
* Ujima (oo-GEE-mah) Collective Work and Responsibility reminds us of our obligation to the past, present and future, and that we have a role to play in the community, society, and world.
* Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) Cooperative economics emphasizes our collective economic strength and encourages us to meet common needs through mutual support.
* Nia (NEE-yah) Purpose encourages us to look within ourselves and to set personal goals that are beneficial to the community.
* Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah) Creativity makes use of our creative energies to build and maintain a strong and vibrant community.
* Imani (ee-MAH-nee) Faith focuses on honoring the best of our traditions, draws upon the best in ourselves, and helps us strive for a higher level of life for humankind, by affirming our self-worth and confidence in our ability to succeed and triumph in righteous struggle.

The documentary traces the evolution of the holiday from the Black Power Movement in the 1960s to its a global celebration with over 40 million participants. Happy Kwanzaa!

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