Thursday, July 20, 2017

Game of Souls

I really didn't want to get into this, but I've seen a good deal of Catholic social media take on Game of Thrones and I've had a few friends ask me about my thoughts.  This has all come to a point primarily because of Matthew Walther's article "Game of Thrones is Bad - and Bad for You."  It is a good read at and I highly recommend Googling it.  Matthew Loftus wrote a similar article, "Finding the Gospel in Game of Thrones," at where he concludes that you cannot.

Seeing as how my blog is about the intersection of faith and pop culture, I thought I should throw in my two cents.

First, I do not disagree with the above authors the show is vile.  I would not be beyond saying that it is pornographic.  If you take the literal root of the word "pornography" it can be translated as evil images.  This means that the images are there to elicit an evil moral response by taking pleasure in darkness, whether that be lust or bloodlust.  And Game of Thrones provides plenty of both.

And on that point, I think any morally rational can come to the conclusion that there is much to condemn in the show.  I have ceased watching the show because I found it to be corrosive to the soul.  I think that some part of the producers actually enjoy punishing their audience.

Here is where I disagree: there are things to praise about Game of Thrones.

Do not misunderstand: praising aspects of the art does not redeem the art.  But I think that those who are engaged in the arts would be imperiled if we ignore what Game of Thrones does right.

I think it is a mistake to attribute the wide-spread interest in the show to only its pornographic elements.  If that were the case, then many other shows on premium cable would enjoy the popularity that GOT does.  X-rated exploits may bring people in, but won't necessarily make them stay in the numbers GOT has.  Just look at the 50 Shades series, where the second one cost more and made less.  GOT offers a bit more than that.

Please forgive me for over-emphasizing this point: acknowledging what GOT does well artisticly does not make it good morally.  Nor does it balance out the immorality and make it "okay."  There some I have talked with who would say that giving this show any kind of praise is tantamount to endorsing it.  I wish to be perfectly clear that I do not endorse this show.  But I disagree that making the following observations is the same as endorsing it.

1.  Great Acting.
The performances I've seen on the show have been excellent, Peter Dinklage most of all.  Even some of the worst characters are given emotional depth by the actors.

2.  Amazing Spectacle.
Though there is a lot of visual raunch, there is also a lot of skill with the camera and the special effects that goes into each episode.  The "Battle of the Bastards" from this past season is one of the greatest battle scenes I've ever seen put to film.

3.  Engaging Plot
The story at the center of Game of Thrones is incredibly complex and intriguing.  It is a plot that moves along several layers all at once and the different moving parts come together in some rather unexpected ways sometimes.  I remember talking to a friend of mine recently who does not watch the show.  I spent nearly two hours going over the events of the series (in a sanitized way) and he was intrigued the entire time.  To this day I do not watch the show but catch episode summaries so I can find out how the story progresses.

4.  Shock.
Here I do not simply mean violence.  Instead, in GOT the good guys don't always win.  One of the things that sets this show apart is that no one is safe, not even a lead character.  And yes, there are other shows that have shocking deaths, but I don't think most people are really worried that Rick Grimes is going to die or that Walter White wouldn't make it to the end of the series.  But in this show, no one is safe.

It is this last point that I think presents GOT with its biggest strength and biggest challenge.  One of the reasons that I think people are fascinated by this show is because it is dangerous.  Anyone who watches it does not watch it casually while multitasking.  They watch with great attention because they know that disaster can fall unexpectedly at any time.  If you watch a typical episode of The Flash (a show I love), you aren't usually worried from episode to episode if Barry Allen isn't going to get out of the trap set for him by Gorilla Grodd.  But in GOT if Jon Snow is surrounded by White Walkers, it may be the last time we see him.

Because of this "anything goes" style of writing, the show is not predictable and is therefore exciting in a way that most shows aren't.

However as I said earlier, it is also the show's biggest challenge because if it fails to bring the story threads together into a satisfying conclusion.  Stephen King often had this same problem where the spice of the unexpected caused the bitter aftertaste of poor resolutions.

I cannot say if GOT will have this same problem, but we will see.

Returning to the main point of this article, there is much to praise about the artistry of GOT.  This does not excuse the use of this artistry for a bad end.  In fact, in some ways it makes it worse because good art can reach the heart in a way that bypasses the rational mind.

So why praise the good art inside this morally pernicious show?

Because we need to understand what it does right if we are to make effective art that enlightens rather than darkens the soul.  The four above positives of GOT are not by their nature wicked.  It would be stupid and pointless to use pornography to try and tell a story that uplifts the soul.  That is because pornography is by its nature wicked and a tool of the enemy.  But acting, spectacle, plot, and even shock are morally neutral tools that if used well can help tell a good story.

In the culture wars if we do not know how to fight on the battlefield where the enemy has engaged us, then we are sure to lose.  Movies and television are one front in the Game of Souls.  Perhaps some of my critics are correct and that to even engage this content by praising any aspect of it is the same as playing with fire.  But if you are going to be engaged at all with the popular culture, you do run the risk of being burned by it.

And in the Game of Souls you either win or you burn.

Film Flash: Atomic Blonde

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

Should be cool & exciting, but it was a kind of boring and tedious mess

1.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

New Evangelizers Post: 10 Commandments in the Modern World Pt 10 – Be Happy for Others

I have a new article up at  
Commandment 10: Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s goods.

In our last article, we covered coveting your neighbor’s wife. In this one we will talk about our neighbor’s possessions.

It is very natural to want what someone else has. We are beings of desire and even as children we see a new toy or a sweet dessert and we want it for ourselves. There is nothing wrong with seeing your friend’s new iPhone and wishing that you could have one too.

But we fall into sin if we let this negatively affect our behavior and our interior disposition.

When I was a child my older brother and I worshipped Bruce Lee. We watched all of his movies and we acted out all of the fight scene while we watched them on our old VCR. We would even tie our socks together in a knot and pretend they were nunchucks. And then on my brother’s 7th birthday, my cousins got him a plastic replica of the nunchucks Bruce Lee used in Game of Death. And I was so filled with jealous rage that I cried and shouted at the injustice that he should have them and I shouldn’t, even though it was his birthday. To shut me up, my cousins ran to the store and got me a pair as well. As you can imagine, this did not make my brother happy, nor should it have.

This is the key to understanding this commandment: we must learn to be happy for others.

You can read the whole article here.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Film Flash: War for the Planet of the Apes

File:War for the Planet of the Apes poster.jpg
15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Bitter-sweet, satisfying finale. Not really a war movie, but a revenge/escape film.

4 out of 5 stars.

Doctor Her

As big-time fan of Doctor Who who owns 5 sonic screwdrivers, 4 TARDIS replicas, and went as The Doctor for the last two Halloweens, you can imagine that I was eagerly excited for the announcement as to who would be the 13th Doctor (if you don't count the War Doctor).

And so yesterday it was announced:

Jodie Whittaker!

Much ado has been made that this is the first female incarnation of The Doctor.  After reflecting on this announcement for the last day, here are my initial thoughts.

1.  Good Choice.
Whittaker is a fantastic actress.  I am a big fan of Broadchurch and her performance in that series is top-notch.  She is able to go to emotional places that are extreme and yet believable.  And since the new series show runner is the man behind Broadchurch, I think that he will get some extraordinary performances.

2.  Extreme Change
It would be foolish to shrug off this change as if it were not a massive moment in Doctor Who.  The change from the 9th through the 11th Doctors were significant but not extreme in the way it was between the 11th and 12th Doctors.  Going from the youthful and playful Matt Smith to the serious and scarred Capaldi was a big adjustment.  But it allowed for the show to explore stories that wouldn't have made sense with the other Doctors.  I think that Whittaker presents an opportunity to do the same thing.

3.  Please No Politics
If the choice to have the first female Doctor was to tell new and interesting stories, then I am 100% behind the change.  Time Lord lore holds that they can switch sexes with each regeneration, just as in some Eastern religions you can be born a different sex when you are reincarnated.  But if the choice was done out of some desire to make political statements in the show, then the show will quickly lose me.  It isn't that the creators cannot or should not have a strong point of view.  But if their primary aim is to proselytize about political controversies of the day, not only does that alienate some viewers but more importantly it is BAD STORYTELLING.  And it does not matter what the message is if the message trumps the story.  Notice how most Christian movies are terrible because they are more interested in preaching than on telling a story.  The worst episodes of Doctor Who are the ones that try to be timely (like when they parodied The Weakest Link) or when they push an agenda (like their worst episode: "The God Complex.").  Broadchurch was fairly evenhanded when it came to things like religion, so I'm hoping the same will hold for Doctor Who.  But I do not completely trust the BBC in this area.

4.  Wonder Woman
I have watched the promo several times and the thing that I like about it is that it seems to be returning to the Doctor's sense of wonder.  I think for me it was the smile.  The emphasis on Capaldi was always the intensity of the his eyes, which were full of sadness, rage, compassion, and pain.  What I saw in that little clip of Whittaker is a return to the sense of wonder that I saw in Matt Smith.  There isn't much in that promo, but that little smile that she gives in the end gave me a sense of adventure and wonder.

5.  Still Not Ginger
This appears to be the last regeneration barrier to crack.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Film Review: Spider-Man Homecoming

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

I am hesitant to call this the best Spider-Man movie yet.  

But I will say that this is the most fun Spider-Man ever.

The story begins in 2012 with the aftermath of The Avengers on a devastated New York.  Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his salvage crew are in the process of cleaning up the damage, including the alien hardware.  But a joint venture between the federal government and Star Industries, muscles him out of his contracts without compensation which will ruin his family and his employees financially.  That is until a member of his crew Phineas Mason (Michael Chernus) realizes that they can make weapons out of the alien tech they never turned over.  This starts Toomes on a life of theft and black market arms dealing.

We then pick up Peter Parker (Tom Holland) where we saw him in Captain America: Civil War. Director Jon Watts does a hilarious job of showing us footage that Peter Parker filmed on his cell phone during that movie.  It captures the humor and zeitgeist of the teenage millennial in the best way.  

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) allows Peter to keep the teched-out suit he made him.  Peter keeps patrolling his neighborhood hoping to be called up by Stark to the big leagues.  Meanwhile at his school of Midtown Science, he hangs out with his fellow Sophomore best friend and sidekick Ned (Jacob Batalon) who both make googly eyes at Senior Liz (Laura Harrier).  Peter gets bullied by snobby Flash (Tony Revolori) and gets sarcastic comments from Michelle (Zendaya).  All the while, Peter tries to keep his crime-fighting a secret from his aunt May (Marissa Tomei).  But then Peter stumbles upon Toomes crew and takes it upon himself to take them down.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the first feature film starring Spider-Man that is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Rather than trod well-worn ground that has been covered in the original Spider-Man Trilogy and in The Amazing Spider-Man films, Homecoming goes in a different direction.

I remember watching an interview with Jackie Chan once.  He became the largest martial arts star in the world during a time when there were so many other trying to claim that mantle from the late Bruce Lee.  What set Chan apart, he said, was that he decided not to imitate Lee.  If Lee would use a punch, Chan would use a kick.  If Lee would go dramatic, Chan would go comedic.  This made Chan stand out and forced him to be more creative than the others.

I can see the same thing applied here with Homecoming.  Director Jon Watts and writers Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers understand what has come before them and do their best to avoid it.  The most noticeable thing is that even though this is the first in a new series for Spider-Man, it is not an origin story.  This allows for a lot of the brooding we found with the death of Uncle Ben to be jettisoned and allows for a much lighter tone.

I laughed more during this movie than during some all-out comedies.  The jokes really do fly fast and furious here and most of them land nicely.  And while the other Spider-Man franchises started in high school, the setting was really incidental to the story.  In Homecoming, the setting is essential to understanding the character.  In fact the title emphasizes that this is a high school movie.  Peter is a hero, but he is also a high school kid.  He is immature in all the ways that teenager can be without being too unlikeable.  He has a good heart and a sharp mind, but he lacks wisdom and insight.  This film taps in to that universal experience of surviving high school drama that John Hughes did so well.

Hughes influence on this movie cannot be overstated and sometimes is made explicit in the film.  This is a movie is a high school soap opera and that is not a bad thing.  This is where the film derives so much of its heart and humor.  There is a particularly Ferris Buellerian sequence where Spider-Man has to chase someone but he is in the suburbs with no tall buildings from which to swing.  What follows is hysterical.  And even though the movie is funny it never winks at the camera too much so that you don't take the action seriously.  This is not an easy balancing act, and yet Watts pulls it off amazingly.

Even though this is not an origin story, this is a film about Peter becoming the hero we all know him to be.  And at times it is wonderful and painful.  There is one scene where Liz invites Peter to go swimming when he needs to head out on a mission.  The set up is so good that I emotionally gave Peter permission in my head to enjoy himself because he is, after all, still a kid.  But Peter is constantly pulled by his higher calling.  One of the things that Watts does so well is that Peter is always on the outside looking in.  Throughout the film we see Peter looking in at normal high school life which is something so close to him and yet he is set apart.

One of the things that the movie reminded me of was St. Terese of Liseiux.  Peter, like most young people, wants to go out and save the whole world.  But throughout the movie he is constantly reminded that someone has to look out for the little guy.  It reminded me of The Little Flower when she said that we need to do little things with great love.  It isn't that Peter's actions aren't great.  It's that he comes to understand that someone has to look for the least ones.  The beginning of the film is a reminder that even the big heroes like Iron Man sometimes cause inadvertent pain to the ordinary men and women they are trying to help.

On another side note, I was impressed by the relative modesty of the characters.  Yes, Holland does walk around in his underwear, but the girl he admires, Liz, dresses very femininely without being too revealing.  Even when she went swimming I think she wore a one-piece.  And the same can be said of most of the cast as I recall.  There were a few genital and pornography jokes however, but nothing too terribly vulgar.

Special note should be given to Holland's performance.  He is fantastic as Peter.  Compare him to the vacant pseudo-coolness of Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver and you can see what real charisma looks like.  He embodies that teenage mixture of contradictions like awkward and confident, smart and stupid, brave and scared.  You can understand him being intimidated by a girl and yet why she would be attracted to him.  And all the while, he shows you the depths of his angst in his looks.  His physical acting while in the suit is also fun and expressive.  He hits just the right town with body language and voice.  One of my favorite moments occurs after Peter has screwed up badly and his first question after all is said and done is, "Is everyone safe?"  He delivers it with such selflessness and shame that my heart broke a little.

Much has been made of Keaton's performance and it isn't bad, but it is also not his best.  The main problem with it is that unlike when he played Batman, he doesn't really embody the character.  When he played Bruce Wayne, he was Bruce Wayne.  When he plays Toomes, he is Michael Keaton putting on a performance as Toomes.  But what his performance lacks in this area, it makes up for in style and energy.

The rest of the supporting cast is good as well.  Downey Jr. has very little screen time, but he delivers some one of the most emotional "dad moments" of the movie.  Tomei is also good, but she is not given nearly enough to do.  Batalon, however, steals the show as Ned.  He might be my new favorite Marvel character.  He infuses a great non-ironic sense of "gee-whiz" to this movie that I haven't seen since the character of Russell from Up.

And make no mistake, this is an action film.  The film builds to an exciting showdown that raises the stakes emotionally in a way that I was not expecting.  

I had fun at this movie from start to finish and I cannot wait to see it again.  The only reason I haven't given a higher star rating is that I am waiting to see if the humor has a diminishing return upon subsequent viewings.  And the humor is such an essential part of what makes this movie work.

But I do have to say that Spider-Man: Homecoming might be the most fun I've had at the theater this year.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Film Review: Baby Driver

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

Baby Driver is a cool movie.  But it isn't nearly as cool as it wants to be.

Now, I am a huge fan of writer/director Edgar Wright.  He has produced some of the most visually dynamic films in the last 20 years like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.  With Baby Driver, he is taking all of his skills and applying them to a genre that is new to him: action film.  Yes, the above-mentioned movies are heavy on the action, but they are all action-comedies.  Baby Driver is the most serious film Wright has made, even though it has such an wretched title.  

The story centers around Baby (Ansel Elgort) is driving savant who has tinnitus which he drowns out with his "hear-how-cool-I-am" music playlist.  He is indebted to criminal boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) and so has to complete a certain number of jobs as a getaway driver.  He is nearing the end of his debt but still has to encounter the likes of Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his lover Darling (Eliza Gonzalez) who are like a tatted-up Bonnie and Clyde, as well as the short-fused Bats (Jamie Foxx).  Baby keeps stoic and silent in the company of these chatty and violent people.  He takes care of his deaf and infirmed foster-father Joseph (CJ Jones) and has a romantic spark with the local waitress Debora (Lily James).  Baby wants out of this life even though he is incredibly adept at it.

And we can see how adept he is in the action sequences.  Wright is a master at filming scenes with incredible energy.  He not only knows how to choose some of the most exiting and visceral camera shots, but he is one of the few directors that is masterful at using editing transitions to create a sense of emotion and dynamism.  Every time Baby got behind the wheel of the car, I felt myself perk up because the chase scenes some of the most fun I have seen in a movie.  Modern chase scenes always carry with it a constrictive element because of the use of helicopters and the like to find the getaway car.  Wright uses that to create a tightening noose around Baby every time he drives and makes the time behind the wheel even more exhilarating.  If you are looking for a movie that has better driving sequences that The Fast and the Furious franchise, then I would check out Baby Driver.

Having said all of that, the movie never breaks through to the levels that it wants to achieve.  All of Wright's previous movies are essentially comedies with action and drama.  Baby Driver is an action movie with drama and some comedy.  The serious undertones are not really the problem, as Wright actually raises the emotional stakes well as Baby is drawn further into the world of evil.  In fact, Wright does something only confident directors do: he withholds visuals.  Some of the most effective moments are when Baby looks away or walks away for a little while and returns to find someone is not where they should be.  The implication is that this person has been killed, but not showing it creates a wonderfully creepy air around the world Baby lives in.

But the dialogue felt very much like Wright trying to hard to sound like Tarantino.  It wasn't bad or flat, but it just felt a little off, like a nerd trying to imagine what how kids talked at the cool lunch table.  That along with his increasingly obscure and hipster-y playlist kept reinforcing how much Wright wants you to think that his movie is cool.  The problem is that in order to really be cool, you can't care if people think you're cool.  One of the reasons his other movies resonate so well, is because he embraces and projects his utterly nerdy side and doesn't care if you judge him for it.  That is cool.

The movie is also incredibly violent and dark.  That isn't necessarily a criticism, but the characters are so generally so morally bankrupt that it becomes uncomfortable to spend time with them.  This may have been Wright's whole intent, because if you make the environment too likeable then you cannot identify with Baby's desire to get out.  But the bad guys never reach the level of identifiability that villains in Tarantino films do.  In fact, in one scene a bystander in a truck gives chase to Baby and his gang and I remember thinking that I would love to watch a movie about this unnamed hero.  He seemed so much more interesting to me than all of the bad guys.  And to be fair there were some nice surprises, both light and dark, in these characters.  But it felt like these traits were given to serve the plot points.  In other words the characters had complexity but not depth.

But the biggest detriment to the movie is Elgort as the lead.  I would not say that he is a bad actor.  In fact, he does carry off the physical bits of the movie with great aplomb.  But he lacks charisma.  And I do lay that on his shoulders and on Wright's.  Baby spends much of the movie in stoic silence.  As our main character, we need to be in his head and identify with him even when we disagree.  He needs to smolder with a fierce, silent intensity like a tightly coiled spring ready to pop out at you.  This is something that requires intense effort and concentration, which I don't see in Elgort.  Someone like a Joseph Gordon-Leavitt would have been perfect for a role like this.  But Elgort does not pull it off.  Instead of stoic and aloof he looks bored and pouty.  He doesn't come off as strong and silent but feels like a typical disaffected millennial.  Wright does his best to infuse him with coolness.  There is an early long-continuous shot in the movie (something Wright did so well in Shaun of the Dead) that is meant to highlight how cool Baby is.  But it just doesn't work because Elgort lacks the essential charm to pull it off.

That is a shame because the other performances are actually pretty good.  Hamm is surprising in the range he demonstrates.  Foxx offers a constant sense of fuming menace.  Gonzalez turns from compassionate to crazy without it feeling false.  Spacey is strangely threatening and paternal at the same time.  Lilly James has a character that is pretty flat but she gives her enough emotion and life to make her interesting.  Jon Berthnal is criminally underused as a criminal named Griff.  When I came to the realization that he was not going to be in most of the movie I was severely disappointed.

And while there is much darkness in the film, it doesn't give the characters easy outs.  Baby may have been forced into his work, but he is still complicit as an accomplice to theft and murder.  That blood does not wash off his hands easily and to his credit Wright doesn't let that be the case.  While the driving is cool, Wright makes the life of crime seem distasteful and a life of love and kindness seem attractive, which is an improvement on Tarantino.

The faults of the movie that I have been cataloguing are not here to bury the movie.  In fact, I mostly like it.   There is much to enjoy in this movie, which I very much did and I was glad to have seen it.  However I am disappointed.  Edgar Wright is too good of a talent to make a mediocre movie.

And yet that is what he made in Baby Driver.

3 out of 5 stars.