Friday, April 18, 2014

Divine Mercy Novena Begins Today

A reminder that the Divine Mercy Novena begins today and continues through until Mercy Sunday.  You can find the novena here;

"Can You Save a Man Like Me?"

(Good Friday, 2014)

I have no idea if I am going to heaven or hell, and that's the truth.

I say this to my students and they don't understand.  All of my outward signs of piety tell them otherwise.  This only tells me that I have done a good job whitewashing my sepulcher.

My wife tells me that I am a good man and that I shouldn't let the devil give me doubt.   She is wiser and holier than I, but I constantly feel the ugliness in my own soul.

So as I ask You, my Lord Jesus: can you save a man like me?

I am so petty.  Even the smallest perceived slights or insults will set the wheels of my mind spinning.  When things don't go my way, I huff and I sigh and I have to let everyone know how upset I am.  Even now, on this the morning of Your Passion, I have already complained about how hungry I am.

I am often filled with envy.  When I see someone who is wiser, holier, more talented, more well-liked, better looking, wealthier, and more capable than I, my first instinct is recoil at my own shortcomings.  At work, when students prefer other teachers to me I feel that first pang of jealousy.  And their judgment rings true because I can see in them all that I lack.

My mind is so warped and stretched.  I find it difficult to keep my mind concentrated on anything good and holy.  When we are at church, my voice is raised along with my hands in prayer.  But how distracted I am.  From thoughts innocuous to sinful, my thoughts can be as far away from that Church as any who chose not to go.  And in my private prayer time, I sometimes do no better.  I cannot tell you how many times I have mouthed the rosary while recalling some movie or television show I have watched from the previous night.

There is so little good that I do.  (At this point in my writing, I am looking at what is here and it sounds like I am fishing for compliments, like someone calling themselves ugly so that others should contradict them and shower them with praises of beauty.  If that is what I am doing, you can add that to my list of faults.  But that is not my intention now).  I work as a religion teacher.  But as one of my good friends reminds me, I am in the business of effecting people's souls.  I have so many opportunities during the day to reach out to this or that particular student, but I don't because I am lazy or tired or distracted or I tell myself "They wouldn't listen anyway."  And I can tell you that I don't give enough of my time to works of charity.  To be sure I am busy, busy, busy.  But that is time spent on things I want to do.  I guard the ticks of my clock very selfishly.  This speaks to my laziness.  I look at all the tasks ahead and I ignore them.

And even when I do good things, pride and judgment cloud my thoughts.

"That person isn't singing at mass."
"I would never let a daughter of mine wear THAT!"
"Look at all these people who aren't coming to the chapel of communion."
"This person isn't praying properly."
"You shouldn't be a Eucharistic minister."
"I could do that so much better."

Even the smallest act of kindness on my part tends to darken my gaze at others who, in my extremely limited vision, I do not see do likewise.

And my faith is so weak.  I have had prayer after prayer answered and yet I doubt.  I have seen actual physical miracles and still I don't fully trust.  Every time I sin I express my disbelief in the Gospel message.

And all of the above are the vices I am comfortable sharing online.  I am not one to share all of the dark corners of my mind and heart.  But even though you and others do not know them, I do.  They singe the insides of my soul and turn the edges of my mind to ash.  I burn in my the fire of my sinfulness, where there is heat, but no light.

So, I ask You again Lord Jesus: can you save a man like me?

And of course I already know the answer.


You cannot save a man like me.

The man I just described is not fit for the Kingdom.  That man is soaked in sinfulness, not sanctity.

That man has to go away.

I think this is the part myself and others continue to get wrong.  I want Jesus to save me.  But the "me" I want him to save is the "me" that is crying out for help.  I'm like the alcoholic who wants the bad effects of the disease to go away, but not the drinking itself.  I'm like the man who wants his wife to forgive his affair, but also wants her to still be fine with his infidelity.  I want him to cover my vices like a band-aid and then carry me up to Heaven as I am.

But He cannot do that.

Heaven is a place where there is no sin, no hate, not envy, no judgment, no selfishness… And if those things are in me, I cannot go into Heaven.  A man like that cannot cross the threshold of salvation.

That's why Jesus did what He did on Calvary.

He did not die so that we could tramp our muddy souls into the immaculate streets of Heaven.  There weren't 2 thieves crucified that day; there were 3.  Jesus robbed us of our sin.  He went to the cross to literally take our sins off of us and pay for them with His blood.  That blood is the solvent that burns away the stain of sin from our souls and makes them as spotless as any part of Paradise.

But I have to let Him do it for me.  There's the rub.  He will not force Himself upon us.  His arms are wide open in an invitation.  He cannot save a man like me, but He came down from Heaven to reach out to men like me and He asked them to reach back.  But reaching back means using both of my hands and letting go of my sin, letting go of this life, letting go of the man I am now.

And if I can do that, if I can just really and truly lay down my sins at the foot of His cross, then I will become what He wants me to be:

A new man.

And He can save a man like that.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

New Evangelizers Post: Tenebrae - A Light in the Darkness

I have a new article up at
Anyone who does not see darkness in the world is blind.  Think of the darkness in the world.

Conflict and wars all over the world, with the nation’s military spread thin throughout the regions.  And the more there is military confrontation, we find more anger and resentment continuing the cycle of violence.

Throughout the land there is great immorality.  Some places are famous for sex tourism where prostitution and human degradation are rampant.  The breakdown of traditional, natural sexual relations are turned aside in favor of alternative lifestyles.

The economy is struggling.  The gap between rich and poor is immense, almost insurmountable.  Taxes are crippling the common man.

There is corruption among the political leaders.  They persecute those who are standing up for the truth of God.  They demand loyalty to themselves above the religion.  They attempt to seize control over all aspects of freedom.  They use the power of the state to force their will on the people.

Even in religion itself, there are divisions and breaks.  Factions all claiming to speak for God contradict each other causing a great deal of confusion among the faithful.  And this leads to all kinds of chaos and anger and hatred.

There is darkness in this world.

Of course, this world to which I am referring is the world of Jesus in the 1st Century.

You can read the entire article here.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Trailer Time: Godzilla Extended

My friend Rick O. wanted me to see this trailer in order to whet my appetite for the upcoming movie.  And I must say it looks impressive.  I'm glad that this trailer gives a little more emotional context to the characters we've seen already.


Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #1

It has been a long road, but we have finally arrived at the greatest movie actor of all time.  To recap, we've had:

25 - Sean Connery
24 - Gene Hackman
23 - Ed Harris
22 - Ed Norton
21 - Denzel Washington
20 - Bill Murray
19 - Liam Neeson
18 - Robert Downey Jr.
17 - Alan Rickman
16 - Jim Caviezel
15 - Kenneth Brannagh
14 - Anthony Hopkins
13 - Russel Crowe
12 - Geoffrey Rush
11 - Ian McKellen
10 - Ben Kingsley
9 - Jack Lemmon
8 - Kevin Kline
7 - Mel Gibson
6 - Tom Hanks
5 - Daniel Day-Lewis
4 - Johnny Depp
3 - Gary Oldman
2 - Charlton Heston

And now we have come to the #1 spot.  The greatest movie actor of all time:

Jimmy Stewart.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 
 Anatomy of a Murder 
 Rear Window 
It's a Wonderful Life 
 The Philadelphia Story 
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

There is a reason why Stewart was a leading man in Hollywood for years along with John Wayne and Spencer Tracy.  There is a reason that the great Alfred Hitchcock cast him in several of his movies.  There is a reason why people remember him with fond memories.  Most people probably think it was because of his affable on screen personality.  But that does this great a actor a disservice.

Stewart is obviously not a chameleon actor like Gary Oldman.  No matter what movie you saw him in, he was always Jimmy Stewart.  But being a chameleon is not the end all be all of great acting.  If we go back to when I started this list last August, I wrote:

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.

And this describes Jimmy Stewart perfectly.  I think the reason people still have an affection for him is that they believed him in whatever role he played.

People remember his utter sincerity as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Taking another look at the performance, it is not as one-note as people might think.  His Smith is a man of straightforward honesty, but that translates often in to explosive anger.  You can feel him drowning in political corruption and despair as he desperately tries to understand why people don't simply see what is good and right and true.  Watch his performance as he embraces despair in the form of fake letters telling him to quit, but he simply smiles and continues on.

He also had a knack for doing great comedic and dramatic work.  This won him an Oscar when he was acting opposite Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story.  Between those two powerhouse actors, Stewart not only held his own, but showed some nice comedic timing and was a believable competing love interest against one of the silver screen's most charming actors.

And it was this believability that sold his performance in Harvey, the story of a man whose best friend is an invisible 6-foot rabbit.  Stewart does not play him as particularly crazy or as horribly sane.  It would be easy to play his character as a child-like simpleton.  But Stewart does not take the obvious route.  He is too good for that.  He plays him as a man who honestly believes that there is nothing unusual about his relationship with Harvey.  And it is because Stewart does not add unnecessary affectation onto his character, but reaches through the screen with true belief, the magic of the movie as the audience not only wants to believe but actually comes to believe, even before the matter is settled.  

But this sincerity was not an indelible mark on his acting.  He could play cynical with the best of them.  Watch his performance in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope.  He plays an ivory tower academic who speaks boldly and shockingly about killing other people.  He sounds very much like a man who thinks his theories are bold and brilliant and he gets a kick out of shocking the bourgeois guests at the dinner party.  But watch as the sober reality sets in.  His practiced cynicism cracks when he comes to understand the real-world consequences of his nihilistic world-view.

You can also see the frustration and power in his performance in Rear Window.  Robbed of a lot of his trademark physicality, Stewart had to rely on a limited palate to create a flawed but insightful character who eats away at the audiences tense nerves with his own fear.  You can even see his homespun "aw-shucks" demeanor used by his character to great effect in Anatomy of a Murder.  There, Stewart uses his own natural like ability as a shield for his own character's crafty nature.

One of his most intriguing performances to me was as Ranson Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  When you watch the beginning scenes, it is strange because Stewart plays his character as a pompous blowhard with way too much obviousness.  At first I thought that this must have been one of Stewart's off performances.  But as the movie unfolded you saw that his early moments were a mask.  And that mask was an ugly one at that.  We see you righteous anger and corruption found cracks into his soul in a way that is all the more tragic because it is not.

But the greatest performance of them all is of course the one he is most famous for: George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.  The movie is magical.  Frank Capra wrote a movie so inspiring that I can watch again and again and it still feels fresh.  But it really is Jimmy Stewart that puts it over the top.  

Watch every frame of the movie that he is in and you will see genius.  Stewart inhabits Bailey at every moment, every high and every low.  He plays him an idealistic, adventure seeking young man.  We see him as someone helplessly and unwillingly in love.  We see him as a man on the brink of full despair.  We see him as a crazed madman.  We see him as a man in love with life.  None of these moments are the same and all of them ring with absolute truth.  The transformation that he goes through in George Bailey's life is astounding.  And he does it without putting on unnecessary layers to his character.  We feel his age.  We feel his heart.  We feel for George Bailey because when we watch Stewart's performance, we are George Bailey.

Watch again his prayer in the bar.  I have never seen anything like it before:

And I don't think I will again.

And when we get to the end of the movie, George's explosion of joy could have fallen flat.  But Stewart earns every moment of joy and fills your heart with delight.

The mark of a great actor is believability.  Stewart took it a step further.  I not only believed that Stewart had the ability to play the character.

I believed in Jimmy Stewart.

And that is why he is the greatest actor of all time.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Film Review: Captain America - The Winter Soldier

I was not expecting this movie to be as good as it is.

One of the great treats is that this movie is different than any other Marvel movie.  All the Iron Man movies are essentially the same type of movie; the same can be said about the Thor movies.  But Captain America: The Winter Soldier is so very different in style, story, and tone than the first movie, Captain America: The First Avenger.  It's like the difference between The Empire Strikes Back and The Phantom Menace.

The story takes place after the events of The Avengers.  Our title hero Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a leading operative for the uber-national defense agency SHIELD.  Having been displaced from his own era, he throws himself into his missions.  But when he begins to question the ethics of his assignments, tension mounts between SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his mission partner Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johannson).

Fury pushes Steve on his old fashioned ideas of freedom, by introducing him to Project Insight, an operation designed to analyze and neutralize threats around the world with brutal efficiency.  This sets off a chain of events that pulls Steve into a world of tension and intrigue where he does not know who to trust, whether it is Natasha, Fury's superior Secretary Alexander Pierce (a weathered, but potent Robert Redford, or even Fury himself.  This forces Captain America to go on the run from nefarious forces that send the mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who are probably most famous for their work on the show Community, knock this film out of the park.  They have a tight, taught thriller dressed up like a superhero film.  Once the first act takes off, the movie really doesn't let up.  Even when there isn't any visceral action, the Russos ratchet up the tension.   The movie is visually dynamic and is just a joy to watch.  The only major criticism I have is that, like most modern action directors, they are addicted to shakey-cam.  This shows a lack of confidence in the power of their action set pieces, which is unfortunate because those sequences are fantastic.

Writers Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely have turned in the best non-Whedon Marvel script.   It is tense when it needs to be, funny when it needs to be, and it has a wonderful twist right before the 3rd act (but this is only a surprise if you are unfamiliar with the comic book).  There are also a lot of hidden gems to not only the grander Marvel Universe, but to previous Marvel movies and short film.  The writers wisely incorporate these as extra fun rather than require you to keep up with the events of the TV show Agents of SHIELD in order to follow The Winter Soldier.

 Captain America is often dismissed as a slightly strong guy in a Star Spangled suit.  And to be sure the directors do an excellent job of making Cap's fighting prowess a fun visual spectacle.  But the movie wisely goes out of its way to point out how smart Steve Rogers is.  He isn't just a fighter, he is a leader and a strategist.  Evans does a great job of playing him as sincere but not naive.  He is an honest, earnest man who is not blind to the subterfuge of others.  Some of my favorite moments in the movie are when get into Steve's head and see what he sees.  This was especially fun right before one of my favorite sequences in the film, a knockdown elevator fight between Cap and 10 killers.

Evans embodies the character perfectly.  He has the physicality of a warrior, but he has the easily likable personality that people immediately become his friends, like veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie).  He has a much larger and deeper character arc than in his previous films.  But Evans wisely plays Steve as a man of the Greatest Generation and holds his pain in with quiet dignity.

The supporting cast is also excellent.  Johannson plays the Romanov as cynical and violent in a way that acts as a wonderful foil to Steve as they make an exciting fugitive odd couple.  Mackie brings a lot of charisma to a character that could be reduced to flunky/sidekick.  Jackson does a great job as a cold pragmatist that is, much against his own will, being influenced by Captain America's idealism.  Redford visibly wears his age, but he still brings his A game to this part.

The Winters Soldier departs from the other Marvel films in its serious tone.  There are some good comic relief moments, like Natasha constantly haranguing Steve to ask a girl out.  But the other films have their tongues often firmly planted in their cheeks, as we saw with Trevor Slatery (Ben Kingsley) in Iron Man 3 or intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) in the Thor movies.  You don't have any of that in the new Captain America movie.  It is much more in tune with the recent DC movies like The Dark Knight and Man of Steel.

The themes are also more ambitious than anything we've seen from Marvel.  Political thrillers are difficult because you don't want to date yourself by staking your theme to a particular time and place.  You also want to avoid strong allegory to a particular political party or ideology or you could alienate your audience.  Wisely, the story deals with universal ideas of freedom vs. safety.  When the main enemy is revealed, there is actually an understandable perspective espoused that is diabolic in its pragmatism.

And it works so well because the filmmakers don't betray Captain America's essential character.  Even as he becomes disenchanted with his government, he never once puts that view on his country.  He is a character who not only embodies American exceptionalism, but he believes that believes that Americans are exceptional.  He knows that we are capable of great evil, but he also inspires good.

I have seen the movie twice now and it is even better the second time around.

The Avengers is a movie magic that almost no one can touch.  But Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best of all the other Marvel movies.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 11, 2014

Film Review: Veronica Mars

Most people know about the Kickstarter phenomenon that is the Veronica Mars movie.  The low-rated TV show with a cult following was so beloved by the creators and fans alike that they raised money on the Internet to fund a full length feature film in only a few hours.

So was it worth the wait.

For any Veronica Mars fan, like myself, the answer is a resounding "Yes!"

For those who are not fans of the show will still find a fine and enjoyable mystery.

The biggest disadvantage of movie like this is that it relies heavily on back story from series for texture and context.  For those unfamiliar, Veronica (Kristen Bell) lived in city of haves and have-nots called Neptune.  She worked as an assistant to her father, private investigator and former sheriff Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni).  She was a social outcast from the popular rich kids, including the rage-addicted Logan (Jason Dohring).  Despite this, Logan and Veronica begin an on-again-off-again relationship until she left Neptune to pursue a law degree.  The movie begins with Veronica interviewing for a prestigious New York law firm with her college boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) by her side.  But then she finds out that Logan has been charged with murder he calls her for help.

Veronica Mars works best when we see our heroine get reluctantly pulled deeper and deeper into the mystery.  It is also a lot of fun because, as with the TV show, we are given a front row seat to Veronica's thoughts with her witty and aserbic narration.  It also works well as a metaphor for people who have moved on from their high school days, but still have painful scars from their teen years.  The things that happen to us during that time shape so much of our adult personality and lives, and Veronica Mars captures that very well.

This is one of Bell's best performances for a while.  She has been languishing in terrible film after terrible film (e.g. When in Rome, The Lifeguard), so it is nice to find here in a role that highlights her charisma and talent.  Her chemistry with Colantoni and Dohring is as vibrant as ever.  Colantoni brings his trademark fatherly concern masked by sharp humor.   Dohring has a very interesting challenge to play as Logan someone who you can simeltaneously believe has grown and matured but could still possibly be a vicious killer.

There are two main problems with the movie.  The first is that it bases its structure on the television script format.  There are B-stories along with the A-story that never completley connect to the main mystery.  While this is a staple in an ongoing tv show, in a feature film it takes up valuable real estate.  Keith has his own adventure investigating corruption in Neptune, but it feels more like a set up for another movie than an important part of the main movie.

The second problem is it hits its social commentary a little too hard.  I get the feeling that a lot of the script ideas were hammered out in 2011 around the whole Occupy Wall Street movement.  A lot of the themes of that time factor heavily into the B-story,  But rather than feeling relevent, it feels like the writers are holding onto an old zeitgeist.

For fans of the show, there are a lot of callbacks to the series that play important plot points and fun, nostalgiac moments.  If you are not a fan, these moments will not resonate very heavily, but writer/director Rob Thomas cannily made these moments accessible enough to the uninitiated.  For those who don't know anything about the show, there is still a very enjoyable whodonit that plays out on screen.

The movie is ripe for a sequel.  I don't know if Thomas can pull another Kickstarter rabbit out of his hat, but I would be eager to see the next one.

4 out of 5 stars