Thursday, November 21, 2019

Film Review: Booksmart

Sexuality/Nudity Offensive
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Offensive
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Offensive

Booksmart is one of the most vulgar and vile movies I have seen in a long time.  If this is an accurate representation of all of America's youth, I would be tempted to ask God to burn the country down and start over.

This movie has a lot in common with a much superior film: Can't Hardly Wait.  Both movies are about graduated or soon-to-be-graduated seniors who go on journeys of discoveries at a big party.  Both movies have drinking, partying, and a bathroom hook-up.  But whereas Can't Hardly Wait feels like a night of youthful excess to be played for comedy, Booksmart feels like an empty and vulgar screed of existential emptiness.

The story revolves around two graduating seniors.  Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is an over-achieving, class president who thinks that she is better and smarter than her classmates.  Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is the beta of the pair, a shy lesbian who is afraid to tell her crush about her feelings.  These two have avoided the party scene in high school to concentrate on their studies in order to get into good schools.  Molly has a mini-breakdown when she has a revelation that the party animals of the school also got into good colleges.  Determined to get that party experience, Molly forces Amy to accompany her on a quest to find the best graduation party of their class.

It is hard for me to describe how ugly this movie is.  The characters lack any kind of redeeming qualities.  The impetus for the quest is Molly's insane envy.  She is completely filled with an inflated pride and it shakes her to the core that anyone could be as smart as her without working as hard.  Their success takes nothing away from her own achievements, but she is so enraged by their good fortune.  The only reason that you feel even a little sympathetic with her is that all of her other classmates are portrayed as horrid.  They are mean, selfish, sexually promiscuous, intoxicated, vulgarians.

The thing is that Molly and Amy are really no different.  They talk explicitly about their own sexual indulgences, look at pornography together, and they rip apart all those they see as different than them.  The only thing that separates our heroes from their perceived antagonists is that they don't publicly display their sins.  For example, the two look down on a girl with slutty reputation called "Triple A" (Molly Gordon).  And yet, Molly and Amy are open to engaging in random sexual encounters too.  Also in a particularly mean spirited scene, Molly decides to mess with Amy's Christian parents (Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow).  They are obviously struggling with their faith and how Amy's sexuality affects their family dynamic.  The scene is meant to gently rib them for their discomfort with their "homophobia," but it comes off as very hurtful.

You could make the argument that a movie like Can't Hardly Wait is morally worse than Booksmart because it sanitizes the ugliness of sin and makes it more acceptable to watch.  I am open to those arguments, but Can't Hardly Wait had a setting which is a bit scandalous, but it had a great deal of heart.  It didn't seem to revel in the ugliness of the sin and Booksmart does.  It wants to be "in your face" and shock you.  Writers Emily Halpirn, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman have given us two very unlikeable, lecturing lead characters surrounded by flat, unfunny characters.

That is also one of the cardinal sins of the movie: it isn't funny.  Bad comedians replace humor with shock, hoping that the vulgarity will be so great that it will provoke laughs, like in Borat.  But that wears off quickly.  I chuckled maybe once or twice in the entire film.  Nothing was funny.  Each new adventure should have been a ludicrous laugh riot.  Instead I felt like Dante going deeper and deeper into the concentric circles of hell.

The movie tries to do an end run around their flat characters by trying to give them depth in the last act.  But this almost makes it worse.  Instead of complete caricatures engaging in deviant behavior, we had more realistic characters debasing themselves.  No one seems to have grown from the experience.

What makes this even worse is that director Olivia Wilde actually displayed some real talent.  There are about 5 minutes of the movie that are actually incredibly well-directed.  There is a scene in a pool that is lyrical and heart-breaking which transitions into a single-camera shot that is expertly crafted both in technique and emotion.  It's like she kept all of her directing ammo dry for these moments and then let everything else fall apart.  But there wasn't much to do with the script.

The performances are mostly wooden or bad.  Dever is the best, making her incredibly sympathetic in all of her pursuits.  Feldstein does okay, but she is hampered by the wet-blanket that is Molly.  Billie Lourd show some real charisma as the wild and unpredictable Gigi and Skylar Gisondo is sympathetically pathetic as the rich and lonely Jared.  Other than that, everyone is completely forgettable.

This movie died a horrible death at the box office.  And I don't think there has ever been a more just cinematic execution in movie history.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Wednesday Comics: Undoing King's Tragedy - Flash Forward #1 and #2

Image result for flash forward # 1

I have made no secret that Heroes in Crisis #8 is the worst comic book I have ever read in my life.

After the horrible debacle of that book, after Tom King wiped his nose with Wally West, and after the fan response has been overwhelming negative, DC had a choice: either double down on making Wally a villain or immediately being unraveling the travesty of what King wrote.

Luckily DC chose the latter.

I know that I often complain that storylines are disregarded by the next writer.  But Heroes in Crisis is the exception.  None of the characters in that book were written with any sense of continuity to who they were.  Wally was the worst example, but characters like Booster Gold sounded nothing like who they were meant to be.

Writer Scott Lobdell had his task set out for him with Flash Forward.  Wally is currently serving a prison term for the crimes he committed in Heroes in Crisis.  I was worried that this new mini-series would be a complete angst-fest.  And Lobdell takes the bull by the horns and tackles Wally's sense of guilt.  In prison, he is surrounded by his former enemies.  Some try to kill him.  But others want him to stay alive because his living with his guilt is a worse punishment.

Luckily, this is only the set up.  While in his cell, a cosmic being named Tempus Fuginaut (who I believe was created for the recent comic book Sideways) comes to Wally and tells him that he is needed for a mission to save the multiverse.  At first, Wally is reluctant, but what follows is a fun adventure.

Freed from the shackles of Tom King, Wally runs with excitement and cheer.  Lobdell does not ignore Heroes in Crisis, but this story feels much more in line with the Wally written by Mark Waid and Geoff Johns.  This story is also very much a classic Flash/Multiverse story.  We get re-introduced to the "President Superman" universe and all of the exciting characters there.  And the last page of the second issue had my jaw on the floor.

What Lobdell gets and what King does not is that comic book readers have a relationship with these characters.  The affection we feel for them is internalized like friendship.  Lobdell gets this and helps us spend time with our friend again.  Artists Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund make the story pop with dynamic action and big splashes of character and color.

Reading this book feels like waking up from a bad dream.  And I cannot wait for the next issue.

Film Flash: Ford vs. Ferrari

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Like A Star is Born,  the final 10 minutes completely ruin an otherwise good movie.

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Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sunday Best: Movies Inspired by Shakespeare Plays

Last week, I made a list of the Top Ten Adaptations of Shakespeare to Movies.  However, I received some feedback asking where movies like 10 Things I Hate About You were.  This would require a different category.  Movies like this are based on Shakespearean plots, but they do not incorporate his words. 

There is also another added level of difficulty in that ideas, themes, dialogue, and plot points have been borrowed from the Bard in a myriad of movies.  So this list current list must be selective.  The plot must have large enough plot similarities to the original Shakespearean story in order to be here. 

So here are the Top 5 Movies Inspired by Shakespeare Plays

10 Things I Hate About You
(based on The Taming of the Shrew)
10 Things I Hate About You film.jpg
While the dialogue is often not great and most of the acting is sub-par, this movie works primarily because of the fantastic charisma of Heath Ledger.  He elevates this material by being incredibly masculine and sensitive.  One of the greatest romantic moments in movies that I have seen is Ledger effortlessly sliding down the light pole while singing Frankie Valley. 

Warm Bodies
(based on Romeo and Juliet)
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It is scary how much this movie adheres to the source material, but transposes It into a zombie apocalypse.  The movie is clever and funny and surprisingly strong in its theme about how love can bring us back to life.  Wonderful performances by Teresa Palmer and Nicholas Hoult

The Lion King
(based on Hamlet)
In an African savannah, several animals stare at a lion atop a tall rock. A lion's head can be seen in the clouds above. Atop the image is the text "Walt Disney Pictures presents The Lion King".
The story of Hamlet is complex, but it is primal.  This means that it can be whittled down to its essence and folded into a children's film.  The story parallels have been pointed out all over the Internet.  And while this movie does not end as tragically as the other, it does a wonderful job of capturing how Hamlet's inaction leads to more tragedy.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
(based on Othello)
Below a dark metal mask, a young man with long hair is front and center, with a woman at his left and a bearded man at his right. Two warriers hold lightsabers on either side, and below them in the middle, two men clash in a lightsaber duel. Starfighters fly towards us on the lower left, and a sinister hooded man sneers at the lower right.
The parallels between the main story line of this movie and Othello are too strong to ignore.  Palpatine acts as the villainous Iago, poisoning Anakin's soul under the guise of friendship until he is so enraged by jealousy that he strangles his wife to the point where he "kills" her.  I've always felt that this movie was a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

West Side Story
(based on Romeo and Juliet)
West Side Story poster.jpg
Dare I say that this story is actually an improvement on the original.  Shakespeare writes some of his most romantic lines for his play.  But I firmly believe that Romeo and Juliet is horribly misinterpreted by modern audiences.  I believe Shakespeare meant to show Romeo as the villain, like Macbeth, who resorts to murder because of his passions.  West Side Story not only makes Tony a complete hero (albeit one who falters in a moment of shock and grief), but the music  elevates the emotion.  I do not think anyone could make a better movie inspired by a Shakespeare play.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

New Evangelizers Post: Clarity and Confusion

I have a new article up at  
There is a song that was particularly dear to me many years ago when I came to my conversion experience. One of the lyrics goes “Lord, take the darkness from my min, when confusion makes me blind, come renew me with your truth.” A short while later, a friend of mine changed the lyrics when we sang to “when temptation makes me blind…” He reasoned that temptation was a spiritual problem, but confusion was not.

Over the years I have come to see that my friend was wrong.

Confusion, like temptation, is not necessarily a spiritual weakness. Jesus was tempted, after all. And God can use our confusion as a means to his will. Sometimes in our confusion, we come to realize how in the dark we truly are. As the great Rich Mullins wrote, sometimes God allows us to be confused so that I can come to the place “where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.”

But there is another kind of confusion that is incredibly problematic for Catholics: moral confusion.
One of the things that I have found in all my years of teaching is that my students want to know the answers to their questions. Even if they don’t like the answers, they want clear responses from their teacher. I can see how many of them roll their eyes when I tell them how is too far to go with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Some of them bristle when I inform them that intentionally skipping the Lord’s Day Mass is a mortal sin. I understand the temptation that some teachers have in avoiding the difficult topics. But it is the responsibility of the theology teacher to speak the truth, whether convenient or inconvenient.
To be sure, not all answers are cut and dried. When I get a question like, “Is it true that if someone kills themselves, they are going to hell?” it requires a great deal of sensitive explanation. But even with cases like these, it is important to be absolutely clear. There are some who would shy away from the Church’s teaching here so as not to offend those who have lost their loved ones to suicide. But this leads to more problems, not less.

Take a concrete issue from recent days. Inside of the Church of Santa Maria, close to the Vatican, were displayed statues of Pachamama in recognition of the Amazon Synod. The problem was that Pachamama is a god to some people who reverence and worship Pachamama as an idol. So some Catholics took the statues and threw them into the Tiber. Pope Francis apologized for this desecration of Pachamama. This whole event has led to a great deal of confusion.

Was this an idol? And if so, shouldn’t they be removed from the Church? If they are not idols, but they are not sacred images, why are they on display in the Church? If they are simply symbols of planet earth, then why did people bow down and reverence them? If they were not reverencing them, what were they doing?

All of this confusion leads to even bigger problems. Can we revere and image that is being used by some as an idol for worship? It would seem the answer is obviously no. That is, unless there is absolute clarity on the part of all involved that Pachamama is only a symbol. But this is problematic, since the lived experience seems to say the opposite.

When Peter was at Antioch, he made sure to eat with the Jewish Christians and follow the Jewish dietary laws. Paul took Peter in front of everyone and scolded him. Peter’s actions caused confusion among the Gentile Christians, and Paul wasn’t having it. Paul understood that this confusion could be used for diabolical doubt and the erosion of true faith.

In America, Pope Paul VI refused to excommunicate Catholic leaders who openly defied his teaching on artificial contraception. Many, like author Philip Jenkins, believed that Paul feared if he did so it would lead to a schism with the American Catholics. And to be sure, a Schism would be disastrous. But even more disastrous is what followed. In the confusion, many people came to the conclusion that they could be full-fledged Catholics and reject essential Catholic teaching. If the pope wasn’t going to kick them out, then it must be okay, right? This is why we have so many “pro-choice” Catholics and Catholics who support things like same-sex “marriage” while other fundamental teachings like the Real Presence of the Eucharist.

I believe that there are some (and feel free to disagree with me on this point), that use the confusion as a moral smoke-screen. Thinking that the moral teachings are the Church are too difficult, they create an atmosphere where the answers are intentionally murky. They think that as long as people act in good conscience, then the confusion excuses their rejection of the moral law.

But this overlooks one of the most important lessons about the moral law: that it exists for our good. Sin is not just bad, it is bad for us. Yes, confusion may lessen the culpability, but it doesn’t change the disastrous effect it has on our lives and the world. If you raised by an alcoholic, you may have less culpability if you become an alcoholic yourself. But whether it is your fault or not, alcoholism can destroy your life.

You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Sunday Best: Top 10 Shakespeare Movies

This is the opening week for the second Shakespeare play I have directed.  I adore William Shakespeare, though I will not vouch myself an expert.  Instead I will say that I am enthusiastic student of his work.  His plays have been adapted hundreds of times in hundreds of different ways for the stage and screen.

With that in mind, it would be good to look at the best ways in which the immortal writer's stories were captured on the sliver screen.

10. Love's Labour's Lost (2000)
You are going to see a lot of movies directed by Kenneth Branagh on this list.  Those familiar with this blog know that I am not shy about my partiality towards his work.  This time he does something quite experimental: he combined the play with 1930's Broadway hits.  The combination is odd and works sporadically well.  The modest budget of $13 million forced the film to look a bit almost all the sets looking artificial like a film from the era of the songs the cast was singing.  The reason this film makes it into the top ten is that when Branagh is able to get it to work, the movie is incredibly charming.  Like many of his comedies, the story is incredibly silly.  But Branagh and his cast do an admirable job of moving the movie along with some toe-tapping numbers in between.  I particularly enjoyed Branagh's monologue about love towards the end of the film.

9. As You Like It (2006)
As U Like It 2006 poster.jpg
Another Branagh adaptation, this one transposes Shakespeare's characters to feudal Japan.  The scenery is simple, but beautiful.  But what really makes this one work are the performances.  I was surprised at how good Bryce Dallas Howard was in the lead role.  She was both charismatic and charming, showing intelligence and feminine grace.  Kevin Kline showed wonderful range as the melancholy Jaques.  Alfred Molina also does a wonderfully comedic job as Touchstone the jester.

8. Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
A man wearing scuba googles and snorkle, his head is just above water. In his hand is a red cocktail, the image is otherwise black and white.
Joss Whedon adapted this version of the classic comedy and shot it with friends almost exclusively at his home.  The simple black and white piece captures the universality of the story and why it is so familiar and resonant whenever it is adapted.  The war of the sexes should always end in mutual surrender to love.  Alexis Denisof and and Amy Acker lost none of their chemistry from their time on the TV show Angel.  Nate Fillion is particularly good as the dead serious, but dead stupid Dogberry.

7. The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part I (2012)
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This adaptation is the best I have seen of this story.  Most of that falls on the shoulders of Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal.  He carries with him his roguish Loki grin, but he pushes all of his dramatic buttons to really peel back the layers of this incredibly complex character.  Jeremy Irons does a great job as the imposing Henry IV, but the one who brings both the comedy and tragedy to all of this is Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff.  The play-within-a-play scene turns from hilarious to heartbreaking because he and Hiddleston play the subtext to perfection.

6. Julius Caesar (1970)
There is no getting around the fact that Jason Robards as Brutus Is awful in this movie.  But as bad as his casting is, you will completely overlook it because of the magnificence of the mighty Charlton Heston.  His performance as Antony, especially at the funeral speech is one of the all-time greatest Shakespearean performances.  You can see how Shakespeare understood the power of words and how they can sway people's hearts, even when they are insincere.  Heston squeezes every drop of dramatic blood from those words to conjure a rhetorical storm so that you believe the power of his speech could move a city to riot.

5. A Performance of Macbeth (1978)

This one is a little bit of a cheat.  It is a recording of something that is essentially a stage play.  But the filming of it is very specifically used to make it feel more than a theatrical performance.  The performance space is bare and so the entire movie must hang on the faces of the actors.  And these performances are world-class.  Ian McKellen knocks it out of the park as you see the slow erosion of MacBeth's soul.  Judi Dench is every much his equal as she goes from evil to insane as the sins she commits come back to destroy her.  This is dark and haunting the way Macbeth should be.

4. Hamlet (1990)
This was my first exposure to Hamlet.  I was only twelve, but I was shocked at how much I was able to understand.  Not only was this because of Franco Zeffirelli's direction, but it was primarily because of Mel Gibson.  I had known him primarily as an action star and hadn't thought of him much beyond that.  But he gives a tour-de-force performance that knocked my socks off.  There is a wildness in his eyes, a madness that sets the movie on fire.  I could feel his intensity in my own heart and it resonated with me like few other Shakespeare performances.  Helena Bonham Carter's waifish Ophelia, who collapse into madness, haunted me with her crazy, sunken eyes.  A dark and tragic take on the classic story.

3. Henry V (1989)
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This film received a number of Oscar nominations, all of them well deserved.  I did not know the story of Henry V when I went to watch it and Branagh drew me in with his directing and his performance.  Everything fires on all cylinders in this movie.  I absolutely adore everything from the night before the battle of Agincort through to the final tracking shot.  It is so beautifully filmed with such long, sweeping takes.  The Patrick Doyle score has been sampled dozens of times for film trailers because it captures the uplift and drama presented on the screen.  I still get chills watching Branagh give his St. Crispin's Day speech.  It is the perfect antithesis of Heston's Caesar speech.  Whereas I believed Heston's words could spurn others to vile destruction, Branagh made me believe his words could inspire hopelessly outnumbered men that they were privileged to stand their ground and fight with him.  A great film.

2. Hamlet (1996)
Hamlet 1996 poster.jpg
This movie is absolutely beautiful.  Branagh took all of his skills as a visual filmmaker and brought to life the best version of Hamlet I have seen.  It is the only movie that captures the entire entire text of the play, clocking in at just above four hours long.  The icy landscape ultra-wide and ultra-wide format give a scale reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago.  All of the performances are excellent and are complimented by the incredible visual design.  Patrick Doyle's score is passionate and haunting.  The movie is a who's who of acting greats with Branagh in the lead, but also featuring Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams.  And yet none of the casting feels like a stunt as each actors executes their role to great effect.  Crystal's gravedigger is a particular highlight for me.  The film requires endurance to sit through because of the length, but doing so rewards you with a unique and beautiful cinematic experience.

1. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Much ado about nothing movie poster.jpg
I've said this before about this movie: it was a revelation to me because it taught me that Shakespeare was actually funny.  That revelation made me realize that his words were not cold and distant, but alive and relevant.  The movie is pure romance, and I mean that in both the modern and medieval way.  It captures to pomp and poetry of the age.  Branagh is fantastic as Benedick and Emma Thompson shines as Beatrice.  Denzel Washington brings his princely bearing to the proceedings and Michael Keaton shows off all of his manic comedic skills as Dogberry.  This movie is a joy and triumph.  The subject matter may be whimsical, but it captures the pain, poignancy, and pleasures of romance.  If I were ever to show a movie to help someone fall in love with Shakespeare it would be this one.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Film Review: Ad Astra

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Mature 
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

I've always said that if you want to sound smart to people, either quote them Latin or Shakespeare.  The makers of this movie desperately want to sound smart.  To the Stars didn't sound pretentious enough, so they Latinized the title: Ad Astra.

The film centers around Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an emotionally walled-off astronaut in the not-too distant future.  A calamity befalls the people of earth and the powers that be think that the source of the problem is Roy's father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).  Clifford went on a mission to Neptune and from there seek out intelligent life outside of the solar system.  SpaceCom lost all contact with the expedition decades earlier, but they have reason to believe that some kind of energy wave is emanating from their ship and affecting Earth.  Roy is tasked to go to Mars to make radio contact with his long-lost father and see if they can resolve this crisis.

I don't know what it is about space movies that brings out the pretension in directors.  This movie desperately wants to be 2001: A Space Odyssey.  To be sure, writer/director James Gray does some fine visual work.  But the space opera feels like it is trying too hard to be lofty.  Even the great Christopher Nolan fumbled a little with his finale to Interstellar.  Gray wants to make a movie with big themes, sweeping emotions and potent visuals.  But he forgets that first and foremost he is telling a story.  And none of those other things matter if you do not have characters that you want to follow. 

There is absolutely nothing interesting about Roy.  He is a block of wood in a space suit.  That is not an insult to Pitt's performance.  I am sure he was told to play the part of someone with the emotional depth of a thimble.  I suppose this was meant to show how Roy's abandonment as a child has stunted his full emotional growth.  Donald Sutherland has an extended cameo as a friend of Clifford, but he exits the movie too soon to have any impact.  The movie builds to our potential reunion between Roy and his father, but everything about it is hollow.

The world-building is excellent.  In fact, it is so good that you almost wish they would jettison the main story and explore some of the side ones.  Usually in good writing, you create a detailed environment for the story to take place in, while explicit showing only about 10% of the foundation that you imagined.  But the story that is told in this movie isn't worth telling.  Some of the fascinating tidbits include commercial trips to the moon, where it has been colonized.  But factions have broken things down in some areas like the Old West.  When traveling beyond safe borders, moon pirates attack travelers for supplies.  Also, there is a space ship that is in distress because the baboons being used for research animals escaped and started eating the crew.  All of these things are much more interesting than what we end up watching.

One of the things that the film tries to capture is the tedium of space travel and the long loneliness that it engenders.  While this is interesting on paper, it was unenjoyable in execution.  You begin to feel like a child in a long car ride, waiting for it to end. 

One of the other annoying things was how the film used religion.  Many movies about the future remove all mention of Christianity, seemingly under the assumption that humans will outgrow religion.  So it would have been refreshing to see that a movie recognizes the deeply rooted religious instinct in human beings.  But any good will is undercut by the cliched use of religiosity as a sign of irrationality.  Whenever a character speaks of God or prays in the movie, you know that they are either crazy or stupid.


One of the most frustrating things about the movie is how pointless all of it is.  When contact is finally made with Clifford, Roy is not allowed to go on the mission from Mars to Neptune because of his emotional connection.  He fears that the ones they are sending will simply nuke his father's ship and call it a day.  So Roy sneaks onto the ship and during the struggle, all three of the other astronauts are killed.  Instead of Roy realizing that he made a mistake, he caries on for months through space alone to Neptune.  When he gets there, he decides to nuke the ship anyway and his father commits suicide in a moment where Roy has to literally let him go that is about a subtle as a sledgehammer.  The only thing Roy accomplished was getting three people killed who were only doing their jobs.  Roy does bring back the data of the lifeless worlds his father found, but that seems a poor exchange of value.


This movie was a mistake.  It is a spectacle devoid of character, emotion, and catharsis.  Instead of this one going "To the Stars" it is going "To the Dollar Bin" at Walmart.