ReasonForOurHope

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Holy Week

I apologize for the sparse updates to this blog.  I have just finished directing our school's spring musical (about which I will write later).  But now I hope to have a bit more time to spend with all of you, dear readers.

Today at mass, our wonderful pastor gave the shortest Palm Sunday homily I have ever heard.  I think he understood that the impact of reading the entire Passion narrative would be dulled by an equally long sermon.

I think he spoke for no more than 60 seconds.  But the gist of it was this:

If spending time with the Passion doesn't move you deeply, then you have only read/heard it with your brain and not your heart.  If you are not changed by this Holy Week, then you have missed the point.

I have many religious experiences.  Working in a Catholic school affords me this special opportunity.  And sometimes these encounters are profound and cathartic.

But soon after I find myself slowly backsliding into comfortable vices.  These experiences, though remembered, feel like the faded memories of a dream.

Sometimes I feel like my life is a giant linked chain.  Some of the links are infused with great strength and power, where God's presence has enriched my mettle.  But then there are long strands where the links are frail and brittle.  These are places that hang between the strong links and seem completely unaffected by them.  The problem with this, of course is that a chain cannot be made of strong links and  and weak links.

Right now I am currently involved in an online game called Clash of Clans.  You have a little village that you need to defend from attack.  In this village you can build walls, but as you upgrade them they become more and more expensive.  Often you can only strengthen one section instead of others.  And infallibly, whenever I get attacked the forces concentrate on the weaker sections parts of the wall, rending the strong parts of the wall useless.

This labored metaphor is just my way of saying that I don't want holy moments and unholy moments.  That doesn't work.

I want to be like chocolate milk.

I happen to be an amateur expert on chocolate milk, having made thousands of glasses of it.  When the syrup is stirred in the milk, all of the milk is transformed from sterile white to rich chocolate-brown.  Whether you drink it from the top of the glass or from the bottom with a straw, the chocolate has been infused into every part.

I want that to be my life.

When holiness enters my life I don't want to compartmentalize it to certain parts.  I want it to touch every part of who I am.

So this Holy Week, I'm going to try to bring Christ more into my life.

Every part of it.

I hope to be transformed.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Trailer Time: Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation

Okay, I'm a fan of this series.

I really like the first one as a straight up action/adventure.

The second was awful.  It fails on almost every level.

But I have the series another shot because I liked JJ Abrams and I thought part III was decent, but mostly forgettable.

But Ghost Protocol was an excellent movie.  Director Brad Bird made the best one of the franchise.

And now with the fifth one, I'm hooked.  Cruise is still incredibly believeable as an action leading man and by this time in the franchise, there is a strong supporting cast of returning characters.  And the story looks pretty good too along with death-defying stunts.

Thoughts?


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sunday Best: Actresses of All Time - The Criteria


For the next few months, I will be cataloguing the greatest film actresses of all time.

However, this is much more difficult than the best actors of all time.

One of the reasons is that there are not as many good roles for women as there are for men.  While there has been fantastic work done by many great actresses, the number of examples compared to their male counterparts is much smaller.

Another reason is that female movie stars tend to have a shorter career than men.  For every Katherine Hepburn there are a dozen Joanne Wahlley's (Sorsha from Willow for those who don't know).  This makes any pronouncement on their skill more difficult, because one of the signs of a great actress is the ability to summon their talent at will across multiple films.  Women tend not to have as many big roles under their resume, and their opportunities tend to dry  up the older they become.  

The final reason that this has been more difficult for me is subjective.  Even though I have seen thousands of movies, there many legendary actresses from classic movies for whom I have no real basis for judgment.  Vivian Leigh was amazing in Gone With the Wind.  But I haven't seen any of her other films.  And I can't recall watching any Lauren Bacall movies from before the 1980's.  This fault is purely my own and it is a legitimate criticism of this list to say that I have left many actresses out based on my ignorance.  It is also a legitimate criticism to say that I have heavily loaded this list with mostly modern-day actresses.  

But in the end, I can only write from what I know.

So as with my list of best actors, I must return to the question of what makes good acting:

"I reject out of hand Brando's definition of good acting as simply when the actor feels the pure emotion of the character.  He thought that his job was to completely inhabit the character's mind and heart.  My problem with this is that it only works if it translates into performance.  Apparently Brando would often mumble his words so that the audience couldn't hear.  He didn't care because he felt like his character.  But if you neglect your audience, you are not doing your job as an actor.

"Another criteria I reject is the chameleon quality.  Sometimes we marvel when an actor is completely different from film to film or they sound and look just like a real-life person they are portraying.  And to be sure, that is a skill that must be taken into account when evaluating a performance.  But impressions are not the heart of acting.  Bill Hader, for example, is a great impressionist, but that does not mean that he is a great actor (this isn't a comment on his acting, just that the impressions are not enough).  If you look at Jimmy Stewart, he does not disappear into each role.  In every movie, he is Jimmy Stewart.

"Charisma is another quality that I reject as essential to great acting.  I went back and forth on this, because performance requires something at which to look.  There needs to be something to draw your attention.  But someone could be charismatic without being skilled.  John Wayne always commanded attention on screen and he was larger than life.  But that in and of itself did not mean that he was at the top of his craft.

"So what makes a great actor?

The one key factor I have found is this: believability in the role.

"The actor needs to inhabit the character in a way that we believe in their reality.  They can accomplish this by disappearing into a role like Johnny Depp or Gary Oldman.  Or they can bring their use their own life to make the character tangible, like Jimmy Stewart or Humphrey Bogart.

"Believability means that I the performances should make me emotionally invested in the character.  Investment should also come about through directing and story, but a great actor will pull you in with their performance.  Their journey should move you to love, hate, heartbreak, fear... whatever the story requires.

"Believability also means that you shouldn't catch the actor "acting."  The words and actions should feel like they are coming spontaneously from the mind and heart of the actor.  Some actors simply put on a persona and go through the motions.  Samuel L. Jackson has had some amazing performances.  But often you see where he simply acts lout and large to make a big show, instead of simply inhabiting the character.  The same is true of Johnny Depp and Adam Sandler.

"Finally, the mark of a great actor is if they can bring that believability to several different roles.  Acting is not only a talent, it is a skill.  And if you have a good technique, you should be able to summon your talent at will.  One of the marks of a poor actor, even one very talented, is one who cannot give a good performance because they aren't "feeling it."  A great actor will be able to perform well in several different projects.  Also, it is possible for a great director to cobble together a good performance from reams of footage.  A great actor should be able to work with several different directors and still make his performance shine."

So with that in mind, I will begin my list of 20 Best Movie Actors of All Time.  



Feel free to send me your suggestions and I look forward to your feedback.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Feast of St. Joseph - 2015


I have written extensively online about my love and devotion to St. Joseph.  I owe much, not just in broad terms of salvation history, but in my personal life as well.  He has been my friend and helper through many trials and difficulties along the road of life.

One of the ways that I have nurtured a deep devotion to St. Joseph is by praying a special prayer to hi every day.  I found this novena on Fr. Z's Blog and I have turned to it much in times of distress.  I appreciate how Fr. Z writes that when we ask for something of St. Joseph, it is best to be specific.

I have found that specifically naming all of the things about which I worry helps.  It unburdens my heart, knowing that I am laying them at St. Joseph's feet.  I feel like a little kid going to daddy.  When dad asks if I'm okay, if I give out a generic complaint about life, he can't really help.  But if I tell hi exactly what the problem is, he gets to work on it right away.

And we are taught to have faith like a child and be completely dependent on God.  And as Jesus was dependent on Joseph for aid, so should we.

Thank you, St. Joseph for everything that you have done, are doing, and will do for us!

Prayer to Saint Joseph for a Difficult Problem
O Glorious St. Joseph, thou who hast power to render possible even things which are considered impossible, come to our aid in our present trouble and distress.
Take this important and difficult affair under thy particular protection, that it may end happily. (MENTION YOUR REQUEST)
O dear St. Joseph, all our confidence is in thee. Let it not be said that we would invoke thee in vain; and since thou art so powerful with Jesus and Mary, show that thy goodness equals thy power.  Amen.
St. Joseph, friend of the Sacred Heart, pray for us.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #1

So, just to recap, here are the 25 Best Sitcoms of All Time according to this blog so far…

25 - Night Court
24 - Andy Barker PI
23 - That 70's Show
22 - The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
21 - The Middle
20 - Family Ties
19 - Frasier
18 - Clerks: The Animate Series
17 - Raising Hope
16 - The Golden Girls
15 - The Office (UK)
14 - Friends
13 - How I Met Your Mother
12 - Scrubs
11 - Everybody Loves Raymond
10 - Parks and Recreation
9 - Seinfeld
8 - Arrested Development
7 - The Cosby Show
6 - The Office (US)
5 - The Big Bang Theory
4 - Community
3 - MASH
2 - I Love Lucy

And the #1 Sitcom of all Time is…….




26 SEASONS
(1989-current)

Coming as a surprise to probably no one, I have concluded that the greatest sitcom of all time is The Simpsons.

As a testament to the strength of the show, it has been on television for more than a quarter of a century with more than 560 shows under its belt as well as a feature film.

I know that today The Simpsons has many detractors.  Particularly, the most common complaint is that the show is not as good as it used to be.

It's not.

I would be the first to agree.

But even The Simpsons as it is now is funnier, wittier, and better than most sitcoms ever get.

What is the secret to the show's success and longevity?

Many people have written about it.  Documentarian Morgan Spurlock even went around the world exploring this question.  I will add my own take as to why this show has been a pillar of television for so long.

1.  Breaking the Rules
One of the most common explanations for why the show works is that it broke most of the traditional sitcom rules.  When it first came onto the scene, the characters said and did things that no other sitcom could get away with.  Homer's coming home drunk would be a most uncomfortable thing to watch with live actors.  And especially things like his choking of Bart would be downright horrific.  But in animation there is a buffer, an extra layer of suspension of disbelief, that allows the audience to move past these things.  And this is on top of traditionally zannie animation tropes.  The Simpsons could stage a scene that was reminiscent of real life and then they could flip back immediately into strange cartoon physics.  This "keep them on their toes" style allowed for a maximum spectrum of jokes.

2.  Following the Rules
While the maverick nature of The Simpsons is often discussed, it should also be noted that one of the reasons the show didn't flame out completely as a pop culture footnote is that the show's creators understood that could not be all sass with no sap.  Hence, no matter what strange and outlandish happenings on the show, it almost always ended on a schmaltzy note.  I still smile when I remember Homer's last words as Lisa hugs him in "HOMR" (12x09) or the collage Homer makes at his work to remind him why he slaves away in "And Maggie Makes Three (6x13) or that horribly sad moving final shot of Homer looking up at the stars in "Mother Simpson" (7x08).  Shows like Family Guy and South Park broke the rules too, but they did not give their characters any real heart.  I have no affection for Peter Griffin or Cartman.  But I do have an abiding affection for Homer.

3.  Shifting Focus
If you noticed, most of my examples from reason 2 were about Homer.  That is because if The Simpsons has an iconic central star it is Homer.  The show smartly does not make it all about him, but there are few characters who have brought more laughter to as many people.  But if you remember (those of you who are old enough) in the early episodes, Homer was much more of a side character.  If the series had a central character in its original form, it was Bart.  The show was young and rebellious and so was he.  But as the fan base got older (I won't say matured), we could identify much more with the lazy, stupid, put-upon Homer than the loudmouth Bart.

4.  Springfield
Another advantage of animation is that you don't have to hire a different actor to play each part.  There are multiple characters who are voiced by a few of the main cast.  As a result, you can have an expansive, diverse, and voluminous population of characters for the price of a much smaller cast.  This has led to a rich and quirky tapestry where the writers have explored different threads to varying degrees of success (I love the Ralph Wiggum episodes, but does anyone care about the life of Kent Brockman?).

5.  Ageless
A show that has been on this long would have required some serious character development to the point where the original characters and their relationships might be unrecognizable.  But in another example of the advantages of animation, The Simpsons are stuck in time.  Or rather, they are the same age in every time.  Bart, Lisa, and Maggie never get older.  This could be a deficit, but the show has turned it into a positive.  The show changes and yet stays the same.  The humor and topics get updated, but the characters have not changed beyond recognition.  Watch nearly every other modern sitcom and watch how the writers have to change the characters over time just to keep it fresh.  But The Simpsons keeps finding new humor to mine from these constant characters.  When you watch new episodes it is like experiencing newness and nostalgia at the same time.

6.  Witty Writing
I know this should go without saying and it has been alluded to in the above points.  But the writing on The Simpsons is above and beyond.  There is a special kind of insane genius with The Simpsons that is not found anywhere else.  To this day I will be walking along when a random joke from the show will enter into my brain and I am caught up laughing like I just heard it.  This includes maybe the funniest joke ever on television (about Candy Apple Island) and the funniest word I've ever heard ("Sacrilicious").  Jokes tend, by their nature, to become less funny over time the more and more you turn it over in your mind.  But so many of the jokes on The Simpsons have a recurring shelf-life.

7.  Universality.
There is so much in The Simpsons over so many years with so many character that there is something about your own life that you can find reflected in humorous truth from the show.  I found myself identifying deeply with something true found in Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, as well as a host of other Springfield inhabitants.  And it is also a show of universal mockery.  Although you can pick out the biases of the producers, you can see all people from all walks of life, all political affiliations, and all culture get zinged.


Now I should make a note about the show's conflicted relationship to religion.  Strong voices on the show, including the recently departed Sam Simon (God rest his soul), were atheists who made sure to make digs at religion and people of faith.  Ned Flanders is the most prominent example of this.  And yet, as much as we love Homer, isn't Ned a better, kinder, happier person because of his faith.  Yes, he is prone to hypocrisy and he sins like the rest of us.  And his piety comes off often as annoying.  But he is not a bad person.

And the show is often, but not always, fairly even-handed in dealing with religion.  In "Homer the Heretic" (4x03), Homer abandons religion only to find his life saved by people of faith.  In "Pray Anything" (14x10), Homer sues the church and falls into debauchery only to have God send a flood, allowing him to have a moment of repentance.  And in "The Father, The Son, and The Holy Guest Star" (16x21), I found the shows approach to Catholicism teasing, but funny.  I particularly liked the division of Protestant Heaven and Catholic Heaven.

Now these are the more balanced examples.  If anyone finds the more biting religious sequences too much to tolerate, I have no objection.  But what I find in The Simpsons is a skewed, humorous snapshot of fallen man as he is broken in all ways, including his relationship to God.  And exploring that absurdity can actually lead to some humorous insights.

TV THRESHOLD

"Three Men and a Comic Book" (3x21)
Let's admit that the early Simpsons episodes are rough.  They were finding their way in expanding from a short format to the sitcom format.  But the show began to really find more of its stride in the 2nd and 3rd season.  And then this episode is where it all came together.  Using the Treasure of the Sierra Madre as the template, it is a story of paranoia and avarice over the most absurd things.  And the Simpsons trademark wit really cam to full flourish.

JUMP THE SHARK
"Mona Leaves-a" (19x19)
I think most people would place the shark jumping moment way earlier in the series.  But I disagree.  There are so many fantastic episodes even into the 19th season.

But this episode leaves you cold.  It feels like it supposed to pull at heartstrings, but really it feels like some of the heart has been cut out.  Instead of making you care more about the show, it actually makes you care less about how cavalier the show is about some of its characters.

BEST EPISODE

This is by far the hardest "Best Episode" I've had to choose.  There are way too many amazingly worthy candidates that I could pick and all would be legitimate.  But if I had to choose, I would have to say…

"Cape Feare" (5x02).
I don't think that I've laughed more consistently through any half hour of television ever in my life than this episode.  Almost every joke is comedy gold.  And it has the best visual gag ever in the history of television: Sideshow Bob and the rakes




OVERALL

My love for The Simpsons is deep.  My appreciation is decades-long.  I do not know how much longer The Simpsons will be on the air.  But as far as I am concerned, it can run forever.




Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Descent of Kevin Smith

Last Sunday I saw director Kevin Smith on The Talking Dead and it got me to thinking about his career.

I believe Smith is an incredibly talented writer and has great skill as a director.  My wife and I got the chance to see him in a travelling stage show where he was personable, affable, funny, and quite vulgar.

The vulgarity is something that has always been a hallmark of his work.  Smith came to fame by writing and directing the independent hit Clerks.  Watching this movie as a young man, I thought it was witty, edgy, and incredibly cool.  I especially like the deep conversation the characters had about Star Wars, and this was way before it was cool to talk about Star Wars in movies and TV.

As I've gotten older, my admiration for Clerks has waned.  While it captures the voice of a young man who is drifting through life, it lacks the maturity to make it applicable to people as they get older.  The characters don't seem edgy anymore.  They seem wasteful.

I think his best movie is his sophomore effort: Mallrats.  Not as vulgar as Clerks, the movie doesn't try to be anything other than a silly comedy.  It doesn't aim high, but it hits the mark well.  And unlike Clerks, there was some actual character development in the leads.

Chasing Amy is one of his most mature works.  And in it you can see Smith's potential to write about things deep and universal, like being in love with someone who can't love you back.  But we see here his inherent flaw as a filmmaker begin to creep in.  Chasing Amy is too vulgar.

Honestly, one of the reason that Clerks got so much attention was that it was filthy in terms of language and subject.  It was a story that involved incredibly graphic descriptions of sex, including necrophilia.  This type of shock-cinema helped Smith's movie stand out from the rest of the independent movies of the day.  But when Smith gets into artistic trouble, he leans on that crutch.

As I wrote, Chasing Amy has some great moments, particularly Ben Affleck's confession of love in the car during the rain storm.  But the movie is soaked in Smith's Clerks-language, that a lot of the more mature work is lost.

His next movie was Smith's most ambitious: Dogma.  It was a movie that mocked Catholicism mercilessly and vulgarly, so naturally it was lauded by higher ups in the pop culture.  Smith has often said that he is Catholic who is "down with the faith," and this movie was just a humorous take on his personal theology.

But like Clerks, this movie feels like the arguments of a high-schooler who thinks he can shock us by his unorthodoxy.   It is like all most of his other films, but with many empty religious platitudes throughout.  I always find it interesting that those that seem to have a thing against preachers tend to be the most preachy.  The long lecture by Salma Hayak's character is cloying and empty.

And yet, there are moments in Dogma that show off Smith's potential as a filmmaker.  There is actually one beautiful moment in this full-tilt smut-fest.

Alan Rickman plays an angel who tells the main character the story of how he had to tell the Child Jesus about His destiny to suffer and die.  The monologue is tense and sad.  The staging and cinematography is poignant and beautiful.  And in that moment, I saw that deep down underneath all of the f-bombs and sex jokes, there was some real artistry in Kevin Smith.

This one scene does not redeem the movie, but it shows that Smith has the ability to be better.

His fifth film was one giant inside joke for his fans.  Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a 10 minute skit spread out over 100 minutes.  Like Mallrats, this film doesn't try to be anything ambitious, but it also lacks a lot of originality.

But the real turning point of his career was Jersey Girl.  Smith had an opportunity to finally mature.  This was his chance to put aside childish things.  Jersey Girl is a heart-felt drama about a young widower who loses his rich life to descend to a blue-collar existence to raise his daughter.  This is a story with heart and depth.

The problem with Jersey Girl is that Smith was unable to break free of his habit of vulgarity.  The movie is still filled with a hot streak of nastiness.  And yet it also tried to be heartfelt and these two things don't mix well.  Instead of something wholesome or something shocking, you got both in an awkward combination.  It was like a glass of fresh milk with a shot of Tabasco.

As a result, Smith got the worst reviews of his career thus far from both critics and fans.  The general audience thought the movie was too vulgar and his fans thought it was too sappy.  But I believe that if Kevin Smith had been able to completely commit to the heartfelt drama, he would have been embraced but the larger public.  That end scene in Jersey Girl as Ben Affleck's character dances with his daughter still pulls at my heartstrings.

But I am convinced that this experience stung him deeply.  As a result, he retreated into what he knew: vulgarity.

Clerks 2 was Smith trying to relive his original glory while at the same time trying to add a level of maturity to this world.  But the two things aren't compatible.  Smith wants to have his Mooby Meal cake and eat it too.  In order for his characters to grow, they have to move beyond their adolescent attitudes.  But the movie has his characters end up in a weird limbo of returning to their younger days perpetually.

And from this point on, Smith has continued to descend into movie hell.

Zach and Miri Make a Porno is Smith losing all pretensions.  Judd Apatow once said that you have to be very careful about doing comedy about pornography or it will itself become pornography.  And that is what Smith became with this movie: a pornographer.  He tried to ratchet up as much disgusting vulgarity as he could from his subject.  The movie is a train-wreck from start to finish.

He then moved on from sexual pornography to torture porn.  Now, from this point out I have to give full disclosure and admit that I have not seen any more of his films.  Having said that, there is a reason I did not want to spend any money on these.  Red State is a horror movie about teens captured by a crazy preacher.  Once again going to the Dogma well by attacking traditional Christians, Smith could not find a wide audience.

But his latest movie was a whole new level of debasement: Tusk.  It is the story about a man who is captured, his legs are cut off, and he is slowly mutilated into a walrus.

Is there anything about that above description that sounds appealing?

But Smith seems to have nowhere to go but down.  He keeps digging to newer, darker lows.

And this doesn't make sense financially.  Tusk was such a terrible bomb that I'm not sure people even remember it was made.

And it is a shame that Smith has fallen so far.  As I said, he has wonderful potential.  He could make great movies, I know it.

Maybe he doesn't want to.  Maybe he's afraid to try.  Maybe he already thinks his movies are great.

But it makes me sad.

Despite all of the crap he has put on the screen, both figuratively and literally, I'm still rooting for Kevin Smith.

Because I see in Kevin Smith the struggle that all of us have.  Do we stay with our familiar sins or do we reach out to a new and sometimes scary grace?  Can I break free of the world or will I let the world consume me?

And I want to see all the great movies that could be made by Kevin Smith.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Casting Call: Spider-Man POLL RESULTS

And the results are in!

Our CatholicSkywalker readers have spoken and they have chosen as their next Peter Parker…
photo by Gage Skidmore



STEVEN YEUN.

I think this is a fantastic choice.  And he beat out the next nearest candidate in the poll by 45%.  I hope Marvel is reading this blog, because I think he would knock it out of the park.