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Based On: HBO’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ Throws a Brutal Italian Twist on a Female Coming-of-Age Story

The latest in a series from Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad and producer-at-large at Family Theater Productions.

My Brilliant Friend, an HBO series (Italian with English subtitles) directed by Saverio Costanzo, based on the first novel, “My Brilliant Friend,” of the Neapolitan Quartet written by Elena Ferrante; translated from the original Italian by Ann Goldstein. (TV-MA violence, some language, one scene of naturalistic nudity)

Imagine if one of Jane Austen’s female-coming-of-age works was relocated from genteel, well-appointed England and landed flat in the middle of brutal, poverty-ridden southern Italy, and you would have some inkling of the ferocity of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante.

Best friends Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo and Elena “Lenu” Greco meet in primary school and navigate the mean streets of 1950s Naples. The two are the smartest of their class and often singled out by their maestros as exemplary students. Despite the ubiquitous crucifixes that adorn every private business, public-school room and home, Neapolitans take most their social and moral cues, it seems, from the unofficial rulers of the day — black market mob bosses, embodied in this story by the aptly named Don Achille Carracci.

Violence marks many a public business transaction and informs the private dysfunction of the families who bear witness to it, day after miserable day. In the novel, a reader might almost miss the violence, the narrator; Lenu refers to it in fleeting, haunting prose. Adapting the material to the small screen, however, we see the brutality as the characters did, unflinching and in-your-face. HBO’s TV series (which recently ended its weekly run; and is now available On Demand and on HBO GO/HBO NOW) does not glorify it, but provides context for how scarred (and in some cases, inured) the townspeople become.

The childhood chapter ends with the murder of Don Achille. Some relief then is provided to the main characters by episode three, where we meet Lenu as she prepares to begin secondary school. Lila, the smarter of the two, can’t convince her parents to pay for her continued schooling and instead cobbles in their shoe-store, while voraciously reading books as an autodidact.

The story lost a layer of complexity when they changed Lenu’s course of studies from theology in the novel to Latin and Greek in the television series. Exposed to a world beyond the four-walled village, Lenu begins to question many things, the insularity of her hometown and the faith handed off to her. I’ve only read one novel, thus far, and hold a cautious optimism that the healthy questioning on her part will lead to greater faith later on.

The best part of both the novel and the TV series (and quite frankly in any TV show since Downton Abbey) are the courtship rituals. This staunchly Catholic neighborhood observes the most conservative of rites. Want to ask out the much fawned after Lila or Lenu? Ask one of their stern fathers, first. The old ways make for the best ways of storytelling. The period setting of the series requires the creative forces behind the series to eek out sexual tension and romance without peddling flesh.

Lenu and Lila arrive at Carracci’s to purchase their family’s Christmas grocery lists only to finds themselves at the end of an interminably long line. Brothers Stefano and Alfonso Carracci notice them and expedite their purchase. The charity does not happen without motive as Alfonso invites their families to the Carracci New Year’s Eve party. Teen crushes provide the setting for reconciliation of families otherwise opposed on the political spectrum and much stratified on the economic ladder.

I don’t speak Italian, but the writing and acting are so impeccably executed that I don’t feel I lose out on the rare humorous moments. Various suitors, including the most handsome of the village, Marcelo Solara, pursue Lila. Again, the social mores of the time demand Marcelo’s best-rehearsed flirt. He states he dreamt of her last night. Unimpressed, Lila responds: What of? That he proposed marriage to her. What was my response? Yes. Then, it really must have been a dream.

Image: HBO

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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‘The Star’: Producer DeVon Franklin on the Christmas Film’s Future

DeVon Franklin/The Star

Last year, The Star returned Christ to the Christmas-movie season — but when will it be back on the big screen?

Released in November 2017, the Sony Animation feature tells the story of the Nativity from the POV of the animals, along with Mary and Joseph. It’s earned 62.8M worldwide, and it’s available on DVD and for streaming on Netflix and other platforms.

Voice talent for The Star includes Zach Levi as the voice of Joseph; Gina Rodriguez as Mary; Steven Yuen as their faithful donkey, Bo; and Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Morgan and Tyler Perry as the Wise Men’s camels.

Other voice talent includes Patrica Heaton (Edith the cow); Anthony Anderson (Zach the goat); Kris Kristofferson (old donkey); Ving Rhames (Thaddeus the dog); Kelly Clarkson (Leah the horse); Kristen Chenoweth (Abby the pygmy gerboa); and Christopher Plummer (King Herod).

I recently had a chat with Christian executive producer DeVon Franklin, whose next faith-based movie, Breakthrough, is hitting theaters at Easter.

Franklin was pleased with The Star‘s performance in theaters, but said, “Animated films can be released in theaters, but they really find their audience in home video. So, so many people have come to me saying their families have watched it.”

But what about putting Bo the Donkey and pals back on the big screen?

Franklin said, “We were going to re-release it this year, but for a variety of reasons, we’re going to hold the re-release until next year, so that we actually have enough time to plan for it.

“But, as an anecdote, my nephew, who is four years old, my younger brother’s son, the only thing he wanted to watch a week ago was The Star. He was like, ‘We got to watch The Star!’ Kids love it.

“If Malachi Franklin loves The Star, that’s good enough for me.”

If your family has loved and seen The Star — or watches it because you read this — we’d love to hear what you think. Drop your thoughts in the comments below!

Merry Christmas, and remember to follow the Star (of Bethlehem, that is) …

Image: The Star …Sony Pictures Animation/DeVon Franklin … TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter and YouTube.

The Joy of Rose on Advent’s Gaudete Sunday

Why is this one candle on the Advent wreath not like all the others?

Advent and its counterpart, Lent, are seasons of penitence and of waiting — one for Christ’s arrival, and the other for His Resurrection. On the Advent wreath, the three purple candles mark the preparation Christians undergo while waiting for the events of Christmas Day.

But, unlike dour Lent, Advent is usually a happy season, full of food, parties, shopping, music and lights. In the retail world, Christmas begins right after Halloween and then kicks into overdrive on the day after Thanksgiving. Many people mirror this, barely putting away the leftover turkey before putting up every Christmas decoration they own.

While this calendar is fine for secular society, it has nothing to do with the Child at the heart of the season. He won’t be here until Christmas Eve, and all the earlybird sales in the world won’t speed that up.

That’s why it’s traditional (though not required) to refrain from putting the Christ Child into a Catholic church’s Nativity scene manger until the appointed moment. Here’s Pope Francis at the big moment:

Some folks don’t even put Him there in their home Nativity scenes until Christmas.

So, why do we need a reminder to rejoice on the Third Sunday of Advent? It’s called Gaudete Sunday (Latin for “rejoice”) – in 2018, on Dec. 16 – and marked by lighting a rose-colored candle on our wreaths and having priests wear rose-colored vestments at Mass (as demonstrated by Kai from our online series Catholic Central, in a clip from an episode on “The Liturgical Year”).

Because the happiness that comes from fun and friends and a full belly is not the same thing as Christian joy.

During a spring Mass in 2013, at Casa Santa Maria in Rome, Pope Francis talked about the difference between happiness and joy:

“To be happy is good, yet joy is something more. It’s another thing, something which does not depend on external motivations, or on passing issues: it is more profound. It is a gift.

“To be ‘happy at all moments, at all cost,’ can at the end turn into superficiality and shallowness. This leaves us without Christian wisdom, which makes us dumb, naïve, right? All is joy … no. Joy is something else; it is a gift from the Lord.”

If joy is a gift from the Lord, then the Lord Himself is our first and greatest gift, and the only one that will never tarnish or break or fade. Gaudete – said “Gow-DAY-tay” – Sunday reminds us that the gift has not yet arrived, but it’s very near.

It takes its name from the first word of the Introit, “Gaudete in Domino Semper,” which is Latin for the beginning of Philippians 4:4-7, Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again, rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

So even though you may be having happy times during Advent, Gaudete Sunday is a moment to stop and reflect on the source of true joy. And if the Advent season has brought causes for stress and sorrow into your life, then lighting the rose candle is an opportunity to take heart and refocus on what the Mass of Christ is all about.

Perhaps you’ll have the same revelation that came upon the pinched and petulant title character of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” as he stood atop Mount Crumpit with all the Whos’ Christmas goodies piled high on a sleigh, ready to be dumped.

But up from Whoville, divested of all its festive finery and fine food, came not howls of anguish nor shouts of anger but the sound of sweet singing.

“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow

Stood puzzling and puzzling, ‘How could it be so?

‘It came without ribbons! It came without tags!

‘It came without packages, boxes or bags!’

And he puzzled three hours, ‘till his puzzler was sore.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store.

‘Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!’”

Or, as the Whos reminded us …

Here’s a lovely version of the traditional Advent carol, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” from a cappella group Pentatonix …

Blessed Gaudete Sunday!

(Adapted and updated from a column I originally wrote for CatholicVote in 2013.)

Image: Shutterstock

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter and YouTube.

5 Christmas Movies Streaming Now, Filled With Cheer, Innocence & Fun

The Star/Sony Animation

Is it just me, or does it seem like there is a glut of standard, made-for-TV-type Christmas movies on Netflix and the like right now? And they all kind of seem to blend together in a haze of mediocrity and Santa Clauses?

Well luckily, there is also a fairly good selection of newer and classic Christmas movie offerings streaming right now, for those of us who like a little more substance and meaning (and maybe production value!) in our Christmas entertainment programming.

Here are 5 Christmas movies on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime that are filled with actual Christmas themes– you know, like the birth of Christ! With a bit of life’s meaning and innocent fun thrown in as well!

The Star (2017)

A computer animated movie from Sony about some animals involved in the Nativity of Christ. Funny, entertaining, and it even gives some screen-time to the actual human characters in the story as well — Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, Herod, and Baby Jesus. It’s rated PG for some thematic elements, but this one is a great choice for the whole family. It’s currently streaming on Netflix.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

The black-and-white Jimmy Stewart classic about a desperate man who wishes he’d never been born, and the angel who shows him what that life would have actually looked like for everyone he loves. Filled with Christmas-y atmosphere and worthwhile themes about the impact of one’s life and actions on others, this one has staying power for good reason. It’s available to stream on Amazon Prime right now.

White Christmas (1954)

A Bing Crosby musical about two war buddies with a song-and-dance act who meet two sisters who have their own song-and-dance act. The two duos work together to put on a Christmas show that will hopefully save a failing lodge in Vermont. This one is mostly just old-timey fun with a lot of Christmas cheer thrown in, but it’s innocent and sweet as well. You can stream it on Netflix.

A Christmas Carol (1984)

The timeless Charles Dickens story about the miserly, friendless Ebenezer Scrooge (George C. Scott) learning how to care about others, when three ghosts visit him on Christmas Eve. This one — originally produced for CBS and one of the better versions — is rated PG and might be a little scary for younger viewers (a bit more intense than the Mickey Mouse version!), but it’s a great choice for those beyond the nightmare years. It’s currently on Amazon Prime Video.

The Nutcracker (1993)

If you’re thinking of going to see the new Disney adaptation of this classic Christmas ballet that’s in theaters now, you might want to check out the older version of the wonder-filled story about a little girl who dreams of her toys coming to life on Christmas Eve. Macaulay Culkin (of Home Alone) actually plays The Nutcracker in this one, and it’s pretty kid-friendly. It’s available to stream on Netflix right now.

Happy viewing!

Image: Sony Animation

Adrienne Thorne is a Catholic mom, blogger and screenwriter.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter and YouTube.

Golden Globes: Our Father Vince Examined Four Nominated Films

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik

The Golden Globe nominations were announced today, Dec. 6 — and a happy St. Nicholas’ Day to all the lucky nominees.

Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., our own producer-at-large and USC film-school grad, earlier took a deep dive into a quartet of nominated films, comparing them to earlier versions of the stories.

Click here for the full list of nominations, but here’s a look at the top awards, with links to Fr. Vince’s posts …

Best Motion Picture — Drama

Black Panther

BlacKkKlansman

Bohemian Rhapsody

If Beale Street Could Talk

A Star Is Born

Father Vince look at both BlacKkKlansman (click here) and A Star Is Born (click here).

Of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, he wrote:

Real-life encounters between Zimmeran’s “Stallworth” and Klan members are well-executed by [Adam] Driver. He quite capably feigns a racist persona for the sake of the investigation. Both characters, in effect, do as Christ did, not fighting ugliness with more ugliness, but absorbing some of the worst parts of their enemies and turning it against them, exposing evil for what it is. “Infiltrate hate,” the tagline goes of the film goes. Not “flee” or “fight” hate as the world often demands.

And of A Star Is Born (and the earlier versions):

The rise to fame of the four female leads enthralls, to be sure. But celebrity stars are more akin to what we see in the night sky: some stars may have died out long ago — the lack of light having yet to travel to our corner of the universe. So, our cinematic and cosmological fascination may not lie in when stars are born, but when, in fact, they mysteriously die.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Drama

Glenn Close, The Wife

Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born

Nicole Kidman, Destroyer

Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Rosamund Pike, A Private War

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Drama

Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born

Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate

Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased

Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman

Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy

Crazy Rich Asians

The Favourite

Green Book

Mary Poppins Returns

Vice

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy

Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns

Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade

Charlize Theron, Tully

Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy

Christian Bale, Vice

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Poppins Returns

Viggo Mortenson, Green Book

Robert Redford, The Old Man & the Gun

John C. Reilly, Stan & Ollie

Click here for Father Vince’s take on Redford’s new movie; here’s a taste:

I feel the director, himself the son of a college professor from the robustly Catholic University of Dallas, did the main character and story better justice in filling in the origin story — even if that origin details the abandonment of faith. The film admittedly, states in its tagline: “based on mostly a true story.” The director’s embellishing of Tucker’s lack of faith, nonetheless tells a truer story about the nature of crime than Grann’s first-hand interviews of the criminal himself.

Best Motion Picture — Animated

Incredibles 2

Isle of Dogs

Mirai

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Director — Motion Picture

Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born

Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

Peter Farrelly, Green Book

Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman

Adam McKay, Vice

Best Television Series — Drama

The Americans (FX)

Bodyguard (Netflix)

Homecoming (Amazon Prime Video)

Killing Eve (BBC America)

Pose (FX)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series — Drama

Caitriona Balfe, Outlander (Starz)

Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

Sandra Oh, Killing Eve (BBC America)

Julia Roberts, Homecoming (Amazon Prime Video)

Keri Russell, The Americans (FX)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series — Drama

Jason Bateman, Ozark (Netflix)

Stephan James, Homecoming (Amazon Prime Video)

Richard Madden, Bodyguard (Netflix)

Billy Porter, Pose (FX)

Matthew Rhys, The Americans (FX)

Best Television Series — Musical or Comedy

Barry (HBO)

The Good Place (NBC)

Kidding (Showtime)

The Kominsky Method (Netflix)

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime Video)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series — Musical or Comedy

Kristen Bell, The Good Place (NBC)

Candice Bergen, Murphy Brown (CBS)

Alison Brie, GLOW (Netflix)

Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime Video)

Debra Messing, Will & Grace (NBC)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series — Musical or Comedy

Sacha Baron Cohen, Who Is America (Showtime)

Jim Carrey, Kidding (Showtime)

Michael Douglas, The Kominsky Method (Netflix)

Donald Glover, Atlanta (FX)

Bill Hader, Barry (HBO)

Surprisingly, after being nominated and winning Globes the last two years, NBC’s This Is Us was snubbed this time around.

First Man, about Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong, also didn’t fare well, only picking up nominations for Clare Foy, for her supporting role, and the original score. And as anyone in Hollywood knows, when almost the only positive thing someone says is they liked the music, it’s not good news.

Father Vince wasn’t impressed with First Man either. Click here for the whole piece; below find an excerpt.

Maybe [Apollo 13 director Ron] Howard made the smarter decision, to a pick a failed success mission where the astronauts bypassed their moon landing. Because when we arrive at the moon in First Man, it feels staged, like we never leave the green screen of the Hollywood stage at which it was shot. The real Neil Armstrong, facing the incredulity of moon-landing deniers, said the only thing harder to do than landing on the moon would be to realistically fabricate it. The Oscar winning director of La La Land proves just how difficult that task indeed is.

Movie awards season is officially underway. Let the games begin …

Image: Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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