Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

‘Spotlight’ exposes state of newspaper journalism

First published March 12, 2016

I watched only a few minutes of the Academy Awards this year because I’m not obsessed with celebrities, and I find most movies a waste of time.

Like many newspaper reporters, though, I was thrilled the next morning to read that “Spotlight” had won Best Picture.

The film is about The Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation of sexual abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the church’s failure to do anything about it.

It’s a true story that shows reporters and editors at their best — questioning their own shortcomings and holding their work to high standards while coping with the tremendous pressures of the job.

It also spotlights the importance of investigative journalism and the threat it faces in an industry that’s shrinking at an alarming rate.

As actor Brian d’Arcy James, who played reporter Matt Carroll, put it, “You can’t have a free society without a free press.”

There are other sources of news, and some television programs do excellent work. But as Walter Cronkite admitted years ago, most of the work is done by newspapers, and television repeats it. That’s also true of online sites that “aggregate” news from print and broadcast sources.

The weekend of the Oscars, I went out and bought “Spotlight” on DVD. One thing I like about discs are the “bonuses” — short pieces about how the movies are made and the real stories behind the storylines.

With “Spotlight,” there are interviews with director Tom McCarthy and actors on why they did the film and the state of investigative journalism today.

Actor John Slattery, who plays Ben Bradlee Jr., the Globe’s former deputy managing editor and son of the legendary editor of The Washington Post (journalism tends to run in families), noted that The Boston Globe’s news staff today is half of what it was in 2001 when its I-team exposed the church.

He added that the “transformation from news to news as entertainment is disconcerting.”

Newsroom reductions result from several factors, including the loss of print advertising to digital competitors, more media competition for people’s time, and owners’ insistence on profits comparable to what they had when newspapers were filled with classifieds and full-page car dealership and supermarket ads.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, newsroom staffs have been reduced by 40 percent since 2003. That’s two out of every five reporters. And that means many “beats” are getting short shrift.

It’s happening in community newspapers as well. Recently I ran into a young reporter (the son of a reporter) who had just become editor of the weekly I edited for 10 years. I had four full-time staffers and a roster of talented freelancers, and I needed all of them. Now it’s just him and the sports writer.

Is it any wonder most young reporters get burned out by the time they’re 30 and go into public relations or some other career? At the small daily where I cut my teeth, we had a top-notch young staff. One is now a nurse, another a librarian, and another, a Marine reservist, returned to active duty. One who still works in a newsroom does assembly line editing for something like 20 newspapers a night.

Last Wednesday, I visited the Kentucky Capitol for the first time since my stint as an Associated Press reporter and saw some of my old colleagues. On a typical day, six or eight reporters from three papers and the AP handle all of the state government news for the state’s other newspapers and broadcasters.

An older statehouse reporter told me the young man who got his start working for me at a small daily, and whom I watched grow into the fine government reporter for a metro daily had gone over to the other side and was now a government spokesman. I can’t fault him for that. I recently considered doing the same thing myself, but I bowed out because I love what I do. So did he, but he has a family. Most reporters I know couldn’t get by on what they earn if their spouses didn’t work.

According to, out of 200 occupations in the U.S. in 2015, the worst — based on pay, stress level and job outlook — was that of newspaper reporter. It ranked below corrections officer, soldier and taxi driver.

Many of us who are reporters, however, couldn’t be as satisfied doing anything else. It’s interesting, often exciting, and sometimes it allows you to make a real difference in people’s lives. After a while, it gets into your blood. But it shouldn’t bleed you dry.

Did Kentucky inspire Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’?

J.R.R. Tolkien literary goal was to create an English mythology. But his Middle-earth may have some Kentucky flavor.

Eleven years after fantasy film fans attended the celebration of his “eleventy-first birthday” party, Bilbo Baggins is back — this time as the central character in Peter Jackson’s new movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.”

Like “The Lord of the Rings” films, which were released at Christmastime in 2001, 2002 and 2003, Tolkiens’ original  story about Middle-earth will be a trilogy. The first part, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” opened in theaters today amid a new wave of Tolkien mania.

“This is not a work which many adults will read through more than once,” an anonymous reviewer in London’s Times Literary Supplement once wrote, but he was wrong. Seventy-five years after the release of “The Hobbit,” Tolkien still has a cult following unequaled by any author, with the possible exception of his friend and fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis.

Though he was born in South Africa, J.R.R. Tolkien was the quintessential English writer. In “The Hobbit” and his epic sequel, “The Lord of the Rings,” the Shire represented rural England, and the hobbits were the common folk of that green and pleasant land — yeoman farmers, craftsmen and shopkeepers.

First edition of "The Hobbit," 1937.

The Oxford don admitted that what he was trying to do was create a mythology for England because his country had no myth of its own other than that of King Arthur, who was actually a British Celt, not English, and whose legend was a creation of the French.

However, Bradley J. Birzer, in his book, “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth,” reveals that England may not have been the only inspiration for the Shire and its inhabitants. It seems that Kentucky, of all places, may have influenced Tolkien’s characters.

Tolkien’s former Oxford classmate, Allen Barnett, was a Kentuckian — a history teacher from Shelbyville. Barnett once said that Tolkien “used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky.”

“He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk,” Barnett said. “He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins, good country names like that.”

Those quotes are from Barnett’s response to writer Guy Davenport, who was one of Tolkien’s students as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and whom he met at the University of Kentucky.

Of particular interest to this Bardstonian is that the name of one of the central characters in “The Hobbit” is Bard, the warrior.

According to the faith blog, Patheos (, Davenport, who died in 2005, later wrote: “Practically all the names of Tolkien’s hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book, and those that aren’t can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not, they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living. Talk with them, and their turns of phrase are pure hobbit: ‘I hear tell,’ ‘right agin,’ ‘so Mr. Frodo is his first and second cousin, once removed either way,’ ‘this very month as is.’ These are English locutions, of course, but ones that are heard oftener now in Kentucky than in England.”

Tom Shippey, who also authored a book of criticism of Tolkien’s work, wrote that Tolkien enjoyed fiction of the American frontier, especially “Red Indians” and James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales.” Cooper’s main character, in turn, is believed to have been modeled in part on Kentucky’s most famous adventurer, Daniel Boone.

The more I think about it, the more I think it’s curious just how much the ranger Strider (later revealed to be King Aragorn) resembles the character of Boone as it has been recreated in America’s own mythology.

R.I.P., Barnabas Collins

Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins

Before there was Edward Cullen and “Twilight,” there was another reluctant vampire.

Barnabas Collins, played by the Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid in the 1960s television series “Dark Shadows,” may have been the first new age sensitive vampire on film, but he didn’t start out that way. When he was added to the cast to bolster sagging ratings, he was a sinister character. But like many characters in TV shows of that era, he changed.

The 1790s portrait of Barnabas Collins that was still hanging at the Collins family estate in the 1970s.

When I was a boy, I loved “Dark Shadows.” If I had known the series, created by Dan Curtis, was a soap opera, I would have been too embarrassed to admit it. But my friends and I who watched it every day didn’t know it was for women.

Neither did most kids in America. “Dark Shadows” had a huge following among our age group. Spin-offs marketed for youth included “Dark Shadows” comic books, trading cards, fan magazines, games and movies.

And now, after all these years, there’s a new “Dark Shadows” movie. It’s a spoof of the original TV show, and of its era. It’s the creation of Tim Burton, who was responsible for the “Edward Scissorhands,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and “Alice in Wonderland,” so you know it’s going to be wonderfully weird. Kentucky’s Johnny Depp as Barnabas, and Frid, the original Barnabas, has a cameo appearance.

I didn’t know “Dark Shadows” still had a big cult following until the trailers for the new movie came out, and I started seeing reminders of the old “Dark Shadows.”

Last week I bought a DVD at Walmart of some of Barnabas’s best episodes from the TV series that ran from 1966 to 1971, and at libraries and bookstores, I’ve seen the paperback “Dark Shadows: The Salem Branch,” by Lara Parker, who played the evil witch Angelique in the original show.

Jonathan Frid, right, who died April 13, played vampire Barnabas Collins in the 1930s soap "Dark Shadows" and has a cameo appearance in Tim Burton's upcoming "Dark Shadows" film in which Barnabas is played by Johnny Depp, left.

This week, I was reading the celebrity obituaries in a newspaper and noticed that Jonathan Frid had died April 13. He was 87.

It made me a little sad — even though his character Barnabas Collins had been dead as long as I had known him.

Kathryn Leigh Scott played several characters in the TV show, including Maggie Collins Evans and Josette DuPres, the 18th century lover of Barnabas. Scott publicly announced Frid’s death.

On her blog, she wrote that she was blessed to “have known this dear man both on screen and off. … ”

“He was irascible, irreverent, funny, caring, lovable and thoroughly professional, and in the end, became the whole reason why kids ‘ran home from school to watch’ ‘Dark Shadows,’” she wrote.  (Read her blog here.)

Kathyn Leigh Scott, who was a Playboy bunny before she played characters in "Dark Shadows," remained a friend of Jonathan Frid until his death.

(Click here to watch a 1986 “Hour Magazine” TV interview with Jonathan Frid and Kathryn Leigh Scott and see a scene of them from the original “Dark Shadows” series.)

Well, Barnabas wasn’t the whole reason I tuned in (TV sets actually had tuning knobs in those days). I also had a school boy crush on Maggie Evans and other characters. And I liked David Selby’s werewolf character, Quentin Collins, and others. But Barnabas was the best.

I’m going to miss Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins. May he finally rest in peace.

(Click here to listen to the spooky opening score from the original TV series.)


‘Higher Ground’ – a film for faithful doubters

“I rather believe in doubting. The only people I’ve met in this world who never doubt are materialists and atheists.” – Malcolm Muggeridge

Vera Farmiga plays Corinne Walker and Michael Chernus plays her husband Ned in "Higher Ground."

Malcolm Muggeridge, the English journalist, soldier and spy who came to faith in Christ late in life and introduced the world to Mother Teresa, probably would not have liked “Higher Ground,” Vera Farmiga’s 2011 film about faith and doubt.

Muggeridge was a moralist who railed against the sexual revolution and drug culture of the late 1960s.

And “Higher Ground” is not in the genre of syrupy “Christian” films. It isn’t Rated R for nothing.

I’m not as prudish as Muggeridge, but I found some of the profanity and sexual references a little disconcerting for a about Christian belief — in the same way I find Madonna’s incorporating Christian imagery into her raunchy videos blasphemous.

But “Higher Ground” is a good illustration of Muggeridge’s argument that doubt and faith are not exclusive.

I liked this movie well enough to watch it twice. You won’t find it at LifeWay or even Walmart, but it is available on Netflix.

The story, based on screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs’s memoir, begins with Corinne as a little girl at a fundamentalist church, where her pastor asks the children at a Bible school class, with every head bowed and all eyes closed, to raise their hands if they said “yes” to Jesus. Corinne raises her hand and is immediately “outed” by the preacher. Moments later she’s shocked by his flirting with her mother.

As a teenager, Corinne gets pregnant by her aspiring rock musician boyfriend, Ned, and marries him. While on their way to a gig, the band’s RV veers off the road into a body of water. Their baby is spared, though, and Corinne and Ethan are convinced it’s a miracle from God. Corinne, a lapsed Christian, finds faith again. Or at least tries hard.

Ethan and Corinne as teen parents.

She and Ethan immerse themselves in an intensive evangelical house church congregation. Corinne’s best friend from the church, Annika, is a funny and fun-loving charismatic Christian who prays in a “private prayer language” – something Corinne wants, but Ned dismisses as “voodoo.”

Corinne starts to lose her faith when Annika has surgery for a brain tumor and becomes a vegetable. Then her marriage falls apart. She goes to see a creepy Christian counselor who instead of offering the balm of Gilead for her emotional wounds, gives only judgment, telling her she’s going to be tortured in hell.

“And you get to watch?” she asks impudently.

Corinne is tempted by her mail carrier, Liam, a handsome, poetry-reciting Dubliner who is also married with children – something he doesn’t tell her.

One of the most heartbreaking scenes occurs when Corinne is sitting alone in her car, looking up at the sky and pleading with God to draw near.

“Lord, help me. I can’t feel you. I feel nothing,” she said.

How many of us, if we’re honest, have prayed that same prayer?

Corinne’s pastor is embarrassed by her doubts and questions, and tries to shut her up. But once, she stands before the congregation, reunited if only for a moment with her husband and children, and is completely honest.

She tells about when she was a little girl and invited Jesus into her heart, but “I’m standing here today, and I’m still waiting for him to make himself at home,” she says. “You know, I call and call. And there have been times, I know, when he answers me. Times when I’m sure of it. But other times, I’ve got the porch light on, and he doesn’t come. And I feel like I live in an empty place.”

Corinne is wrestling with God, like Jacob did in the Bible, and she tells her fellow parishioners, “I’m not going to let go until he blesses me.”

Like Corinne, I admire those who have that “blessed assurance” that evangelical Christians sing about. But for others — and I’m among them — faith is a journey.

At Gethsemane, Jesus asked his Father to let the bitter cup he was about to drink from pass from him, but that the Father's will, not his own, be done.

If this has also been your experience, we’re both in good company. Peter told Jesus he would never reject him, but Jesus said that before the rooster crowed the next morning, Peter would deny him three times. Peter didn’t believe Jesus when he told him he could walk on water, and started to sink. Thomas, like Peter, also encountered the risen Lord, but wouldn’t believe it was really him until he had placed his fingers in the Savior’s wounds.

Even Jesus prayed to Abba (the Aramaic word for Dad), to “let this cup pass,” but then said, “not my will, but yours be done.”

That prayer was answered, and because it was, we were ransomed.

Even as he hung on the cross, Jesus pleaded, echoing the words of the Psalmist: “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”

Just because we feel forsaken by God doesn’t mean that we are.

C.S. Lewis

During this Lenten season, I have been reading a devotional booklet from my church with excerpts from the writings of C.S. Lewis, a former atheist who became a Christian as an adult and became one of the best-known defenders and explainers of the faith.

In the passage I read on Maundy Thursday, Lewis wrote that having anxieties isn’t a defect of faith. “They are afflictions, not sins.” Even Jesus, at Gethsemane, had his hour of “sweating blood” as he was filled with dread and loneliness. He was, after all, fully human. The Word became flesh so that he could feel what we feel. So we shouldn’t feel guilty about having Gethsemane moments.

In Mark 9:14-29, Jesus questions the faith of the father of a boy who is possessed by an evil spirit. The father answers: “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.”

Flannery O' Connor

Flannery O’Connor, the southern novelist, and a Catholic, said that “Help my unbelief” is the “foundation prayer of faith.”

“Let me tell you this,” O’Connor wrote.”Faith comes and goes. It rises like the tides of an invisible ocean. If it is presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it is presumptuous to think that unbelief will.”

“Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you,” she says. “It is trust, not certainty.”


Trust and act on your faith as if you believe, and belief may return.

Like Corinne, if we wrestle with God and don’t let go, the morning will come, and perhaps with it, a blessing.

To view a trailer of “Higher Ground,” click here on link of copy and paste it into your browser:




Coal River and ‘The Last Mountain’

The Last Mountain movie poster

“Coal is mean, coal is cruel and coal kills,” said Maria Gunnoe, a resident of the Coal River area of West Virginia and daughter of a coal miner.

And we’re all responsible for it, she adds.

That’s strong language, but if you watch the documentary film “The Last Mountain,” you will understand her feelings and those of her neighbors.

Maria Gunnoe, coal miner's daughter and opponent of mountaintop removal mining.

The film by Bill Haney (watch the trailer at or by clicking on this link), tells the story of Coal River Mountain, the last mountain in the area that hasn’t yet been destroyed by Massey Coal, the largest coal company in the country and one which had gotten away with tens of thousands of violations of federal law before the EPA finally acted by levying a mere $24 million in fines.

In the film, one resident, Jack Spadaro walks beside his daughter’s school, which was beneath a coal silo, and runs his handkerchief along the white outside wall, then shows environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that it is covered with black coal dust. This is what the children’s lungs are going to look like, he said.

Another resident, Jennifer Hall-Massey, tells of the many neighbors who have been made ill, and others who have died, she believes, because of toxic minerals. The national average for brain tumors, she said, is about one in 100,000.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental attorney and son of the late Sen. Bobby Kennedy, has been a leader in the fight to save Coal River Mountain.

“Here we had six living side by side,” she said.

The Appalachian Mountains, the oldest  in the world, are being destroyed by mountaintop removal mining, in which explosives with the combined force of an atomic bomb every week, are used to blast away the peaks, and giant earth-moving machines then level them to get to the thin coal seams. The “overburden,” which used to be forests and topsoil, but also includes poisonous minerals like arsenic and mercury, is pushed into streams, polluting the water. Water and waste are held in slurry ponds, which have escaped, flooding valleys and killing residents.

Homes have been damaged by flooding and blasting. People have died when huge boulders have crashed into houses.

“If the American people could see this, there would be a revolution in this country,” Kennedy says.

But I’m not so sure.

Kentuckians and West Virginians do know what is happening, yet they turn a blind eye to it. They drive around with bumper stickers on their car that read “Friends of Coal” and “Coal keeps the lights on.”

As Maria Gunnoe said, we’re all in on it.

We know that coal burning is the number one source of climate change, which is already having dire effects around the world, and which will destroy the atmosphere if we do nothing. The burning of coal is the reason for acid rain, which is the reason pristine mountain lakes as far away as New England are now dead, and why we’re warned not to eat even ocean fish like tuna more than once a week because of high levels of mercury contamination.

And it’s unnecessary. Americans are the most innovative people in the world. It’s absurd that our energy system is still based on something as antiquated and dangerous as coal, when there are so many ways to produce electricity that isn’t dependent on a finite and almost exhausted resource.

Before and after: What mountaintop removal mining does to an Appalachian landscape. Photo by Parade magazine.

The people of Coal River Mountain want to build wind farms — giant windmills that will produce enough electricity to supply tens of thousands of residents — as other communities have done, but they won’t be able to do so if Massey destroys the mountain first.

“They’re determined to knock down this mountain,” said one resident. “We’re determined to stop them.”

“The Last Mountain” is showing this week at the Kentucky Theater on Main Street in Lexington, and it is the only scheduled showing in Kentucky. If you care about the future of the mountains and their people and really want to understand what’s happening, you have to see this film. Visit the website at for show times.

To read a review of the movie in Parade and see more photos, visit:

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