Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #16 - The Golden Girls

7 SEASONS (1985-1992)

This show should not work, at least demographically.

Targeting hip, young viewers has always been a mainstay of television.  And yet here was a show that was about 4 single women who were in the golden years of their lives.  On paper, this show should be a boring disaster.  And yet it works so well.

The main reason is the chemistry between the characters and the actors.  They play off of and against each other so well.  Betty White's Rose is such a ditzy sweetheart.  Rue MacClanahan's Blanche is an odd contradiction of sophistication and slutty.  Bea Arthur's Dorothy is a though, no-nonsense, liberated woman.  And Estelle Getty's Sophia is matronly without being matriarchal.

I remember being in high school and mentioning to the guys at my lab table that I watched Golden Girls and they teased me for enjoying the show.  I thought that I was just strange.  But then I mentioned this to Rick O. and he said, "Are you kidding?  That show is hysterical.  I could listen to Sophia all day."  It was then that I knew I wasn't crazy.  (or maybe it just meant both of us were crazy)

The producers of this show understood that what would make this show so great was allowing this fantastic comedic actresses the space they need through the plot to let their different personalities clash against each other in comedic explosions.  How much laughter was mined at Dorothy's exhaserbated expressions as Rose went on and on about St. Olaf?  How many witty zingers were lobbed at Blanche by Sophia because she was the only one not polite enough to be candid?

Each episode's plot is, in the end, unimportant.  Yes, they did raise many "issues" in this show like Alzheimer's, homelessness, sexual harassment, and the like.  This tended to be actually where the show was weakest.  There are very few things on television as tedious as being preached at by a show.  But the show never forgot to keep bringing the funny and mine even the most serious topic for the greatest of laughs (more on this later).

The other biggest detriment was the surprisingly loose morals of the women in the house, particularly Blanche.  What's strange is that the show would often address things like her illicit behavior and how bad it was.  But then it would completely throw out the lesson for the next episode.  The characters, for the most part remained static.

But even in that static state, the comedic energy was palpable.


"The Way We Met" (1x25)
The first season was the roughest for the show.  As with most series, the writers and the actors were still trying to find their rhythm.  There is a lot of mediocrity in that first season, filled with every kind of TV trope.

But the season finale is told mostly in flashback about how the girls all met each other and came together.  At that point, if you are not bowled over by their chemistry, you will never be.

"There Goes the Bride pt 2" (5x17)
Dorothy's ex husband Stan (Herbert Edelmen) had been a recurring character on the show and was always the butt of jokes a no good lout.  He still was a no good lout, but Dorothy was falling for him again.  At this point, the show started to lose its shine because they began to run out of story ideas.  They had hit tons of serious issues twice, like homosexuality and artificial insemination.  Blanche, in fact, had twice, in two different episodes, accidentally began dating men before realizing that each was physically handicapped.  And by this episode, the futility of this story was apparent from the start.  It became difficult to get invested.  And at this point, it began to feel like that the show was not trying as hard as it should.

"Not Another Monday" (5x07)
This is hands-down, the best episode.  The plot is another "very special" topic: Sophia has a friend that wants to commit suicide and she wants Sophia to be there with her.  But this show highlights the show's strengths.  While struck with her moral dilemma, Sophia turns to her roommates.  Even in the midsts of the seriousness, the funniest jokes fly.  Particularly Rose's monologue:

Gunilla Olfstadter was a nurse at Cedars of St. Olaf hospital. She was taking care of Sven Bjornson and he asked her if she would get him some mouth moisteners and then kill him.  She got the mouth moisteners right away, but well, the killing thing, it seemed to go against everything she'd been taught.  He begged and begged and, by her coffee break, she pulled the plug.  She was racked with guilt.  Not only had she parked her car in a doctor's spot, but she was never sure if Sven's pleading was the pain talking, the medication talking or the guy in the next bed talking.  You see, the guy in the next bed was Ingmar Von Bergen, St. Olaf's meanest ventriloquist.

Golden Girls is a nice, pleasant distraction of a show.  It is a lesson in comedic chemistry and can still be enjoyed years later.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Film Flash: Let's Be Cops

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

Funny premise and good chemistry, but long comedies need to learn that less is more.

2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

New Evangelizers Post: Jesus - The Word of God

I have a new article up at

John’s Gospel begins:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
It is perhaps one of the most profound openings to any story ever written.  When I teach this Gospel in class, we spend a good deal of time just on this one verse alone.  John’s Gospel is like that.  I read a quote from Rev. Charles Spurgeon  that said that this Gospel is “Shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough to drown an elephant.”

This means that you can enjoy the story that John tells just on the surface.  And it is a wonderfully dramatic and compelling plot, written with great skill.  But each part is pregnant with spiritual significance. 

And the deeper you look, the more layers can be found underneath.  And there is much to reflect upon, particular about who Christ is.  The Word is Jesus. 

What does it mean that Jesus is the Word of God?

I would like to spend some time with this first verse.  I am not going to be able to expound all of its meaning.  I don’t know if anyone could.  I could write books about the ideas that John, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is trying to convey

You can read the entire article here.

Film Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I have always been lukewarm to the Planet of the Apes franchise, with its pessimistic to nihilistic tone. The bleak hopelessness never really appealed to me, even while I acknowledge the skill of storytelling that many of the installments display.

I felt the same way about the last film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Apart from the amazing-as-always Andy Serkis, I found that the movie was nothing to write home about. So it was with little enthusiasm that I went to see the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

And it is the best movie in the franchise.  This includes the original Heston Classic.

Dawn takes place about a decade after the end of Rise. The simian flu has destroyed most of humanity. The apes, led by Caesar (Serkis) have kept to themselves and we find them working and hunting in primal harmony. But the last remnants of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) incur into ape territory to try one last effort to get electricity for their people. The result is a mounting conflict between humans and apes as there are faction fighting for peace and others aching for war.

While the plot seems simple, it yields incredibly rich results. What makes the stakes so strong is that most of the characters are three-dimensional. While watching both sides of the rising conflict, I completely understood the rationale of all sides. This could have easily devolved into dumb-oppressive humans against freedom-loving apes, as Rise portrayed. But the tension kept increasing because the decisions that most of the characters make, human and ape, are choices we would make in those situations and they can lead tragically to violence. Based on the trailers, I thought that Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman) as the co-leader of the human community was going to be a simple revenge-driven ape hater. But I was so pleasantly surprised to find this wasn't the case. He espouses violence, but he is not a reactionary. He is a wounded man cautious about the safety of his people.

Director Matt Reeves has an incredibly confident style about him, relying on his mastery of visuals to tell the story in a profoundly affective way. He works from an incredibly smart script from Matt Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver. The post-apocalyptic landscape is moody and full of character and foreboding. He relies heavily on the special effects, not so much for spectacle (of which there is plenty) but for emotion, story, and character. The apes speak, but are not nearly as loquacious as the humans. Most of their character has to be conveyed with their non-verbals.

A word here about the ape design and motion capture, which is incredible. The design is fantastic and doesn't fall into the trap of making most of the apes indistinguishable from each other. Caesar is pensive and noble in appearance. Koba (Toby Kebbel), his friend and general, has a scarred and grizzled look. Caesar's son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) looks like midway point between Caesar and Koba: scarred but idealistic. M uch of the drama centers around the fight for Blue Eyes' soul. And several other minor ape characters are immediately recognizable.

The motion capture is some of the best I've ever had. Serkis' skill is diffused to the much of the rest of the cast. Reeves understands that cool-looking CGI must be subservient to real emotion. I cared about Caesar and his struggle. And much of that is based on how effectively the motion capture can convey Serkis' amazing performance. It is one of the best acting jobs I have seen this year and I think that he will once again be snubbed of an Oscar nomination, which he richly deserves. Caesar is a bag of contradictions all rolled into one: he is the leader of a people who has more sympathy for enemy humans than most of his people. He is a warrior who hates violence. And Serkis plays him with incredible conviction and charisma.

As a Catholic, I love how the movie shows the waste of war. So much of human conflict comes from our inability to get along and those agitating elements that desire conflict. Peace seems so close and yet just out of grasp. It also shows how violence and hatred can erode the soul. Without giving too much away, Koba begins as an incredibly sympathetic friend who is haunted by the cruelty of his former human torturers. But he uses that wound to nurture his hatred. It is a stark warning that even justifiable anger can eventually warp the soul if it uses that pain to justify horror.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a fantastic story and excellent mediation of violence set in a bleak, but visually spectacular future. If you only see one Planet of the Apes movie, see this one.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Logic Lessons Pt 12 - Kinds of Definitions

Once we have established the rules for definitions, it important to list the kinds of definitions.

1.  Nominal.
     This is a definition of a word rather than the thing that the word designates.  This means that it the definition is in reference to how a word is used rather than what it is.  A nominal definition is something that Webster is interested in when giving the different ways that word "soul" is used in the English language.  But a real definition is what Plato is interested in when asking question in through his dialogues to discover what is the soul's essence.

Nominal definitions are not true or false.  It is simply a matter of their usage.

Of nominal definitions, they are men to convey
a. Conventional Meanings - this refers what is commonly held as the definition, whether or not it is accurate.  The conventional meaning of "education" is schooling by teachers over students.  But the thing itself is not limited to that.
b.  Specialized Meanings - this refers to definitions agreed upon in a discussion.  For example, if you are trying to define human life, you can say, "Let's stipulate that any creature that has reason is human."  And if you and your interlocutor agree, it is a specialized meaning.
c.  Synonym.  - this is the simple word replacement for an equivalent word.
d.  Etymology - understanding the word's origin as definition.  For example "philosophy" is based on two Greek words "phileo" meaning "love" and "sophia" meaning wisdom."  So philosophy is the "love of wisdom."
e. Examples - These are not strictly definitions but they are helpful to get the idea across to someone.  Try defining the color red.  You'll find t"3-hat more often than anything, you point out red things rather than define the thing itself.

2.  Essential
     This should give the genus and specific difference (or property) of the thing being defined.  This is what Socrates always strove for.  He wanted to understand a thing's essence.

When using a genus, you should use the narrowest of genus available.  You could use the genus "shape" or "plane figure" for "triangle."  "Plane figure" is a narrower genus and so it is preferable.

The specific difference tells us how the thing being defined is different than all the other things in the genus.  "3-Sided, enclosed, whose angles equal 180 degrees" is the specific difference.

Together, the genus and specific difference gives us the species.

For example, the species of human is the animal (genus) that is rational (specific difference).  We are like all the other beasts because we share the fact that we are all animals.  But we are different because we are the only ones who have reason.

3.  By Property.
  This is a quality that flows from the essence.  For example, if you said that "Humans are animals that write poetry," you are defining "humans" by a quality that comes only from its essence.  Since the essence of human beings is that we are rational and only those who have reason have language and only those who have language have poetry, therefore human beings are the animals that write poetry."

4.  By Accidents.
   Accidental properties are changeable, non-essential aspects of a thing.  You could define the "clouds" to a child as "the white things in the sky."  But those qualities of "whiteness" and "in-the-skyness" are not essential to a cloud.  Clouds can be different colors.  They can also be be in other locations.  But even though accidents cannot give you an essential definition, if you add enough of them you can convey a clear picture of the subject another person.

5.  By Efficient Cause.
  This is the an explanation of a things origins.  E.g. "AIDS is a disease caused by HIV."

6.  By Final Cause.
  This defining a thing by the purpose for which it is designed.  E.g. "A pen is an instrument for writing."

7. From  Material Cause
  This is defining a thing by its composition.  E.g. "Water is 2 parts hydrogen and 1 part oxygen."

8.  From Effects.
   This is usually done as a catch-all for something that cannot be defined in any other way than the effect it causes.  E.g. a "carcinogen" is defined as "anything the causes cancer."

Film Review: Jersey Boys

This review will be short, unlike the movie I am reviewing.

Jersey Boys is a "musical" about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  It is not a musical in the traditional sense of characters breaking into spontaneous song.  This can be done well, as in the movies Once and Begin Again (to be reviewed later).  And to be sure, the music is the best part of this movie.  But the film is long, vulgar, and boring.

The story starts with Tommy Devito (Vincent Piazza) narrating about life in "the neighborhood" in '50's Jersey.  He works for mob boss Gyp Decarlo (Christopher Walken) and is best friends with Frankie (John Lloyd Young).  Tommy is an amoral, two-bit nogoodnick who helps nurture the overly talented Frankie.  Later they meet songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) who is much more clean-cut and wants the group to be about the music.  Bob and Tommy have competing narrations.  Later the other member of the Four Seasons, Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) also chimes in as a moderating perspective.  Ostensibly, the story is about Frankie, but he gets no narration until a few lines at the very end.  The quartet navigate the trials and tribulations of rising to stardom and dealing with the excesses.

The movie is filled with problems.

1.  The characters are just plain unlikeable.  They feel like characters from The Sopranos, with all of their self-centered machismo.  Even Frankie, who is supposed to be the sweet innocent, is actually kind of scummy.  He marries early, but he simply takes it for granted that he should sleep with other women on the road.

2. The movie is too long.  At 134 minutes, it drags and drags.  This is a common problems in movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

3.  It is too episodic.  One of the main problems of biopics is that they tend to wander in the narrative.  It feels like we wander into vignettes about a person's life with no real sense of plot structure.

4.  The women are 1-dimensional.  I know that this is a common problem in film, but the women in the movie are flagrantly used as ornaments to the men in the story and serve no other function as to help shape the emotions of the men.  It is so blatant that it gets quite annoying.

The only saving grace of the movie is the music.  Those songs will be stuck in your head and you will remember with nostalgia how fun it is to listen to Frankie Valli's falsetto.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #17 - Raising Hope

4 Seasons (2010-2014)

I remember watching the pilot to Raising Hope and not being terribly impressed.  The premise was that Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff) is an idiot slacker son of idiot parents Burt (Garret Dillahunt) and Virginia (Martha Plimpton) who all live in with Jimmy's great grandmother Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman).  Jimmy has a one night stand with a girl who turns out to be a serial killer.  She gives birth to the baby and is executed, leading Jimmy the responsibility to raise the baby, named Hope, with his quirky family.

As dark as that premise is, the film is long on the silly.  And yet the one of the last scenes in the pilot was filled with a lot of surprising heart.

But it didn't hook me, so I let it go.  But then a year later there was an episode with Ashley Tisdale in it.  My wife and I being fans of the High School Musical series, we watched.  And it was fantastic.  So we finished the rest of the season and went back and watch everything that had come before.

Here is the key to understand Raising Hope: it is a smartly written show about stupid people.  There are a lot of low-brow comedies that are low brow because the writers have no wit.  But the creators of Raising Hope use the characters to come up with not only incredibly clever turns of phrase, but deal with complex ideas.  I've never seen a television episode of a sitcom so clearly and succinctly explain the problem of inflation and national borrowing debt in a way that was silly and intelligent at the same time.

On a small note, I liked the fact that the Chances went to church regularly.  Like the Simpsons, they are not saints, but even as they fell short of the Christian ideals, they acknowledged that there was something of value in the faith.

The show was extremely broad in its comedy, with no room for subtlety or any real drama.  But that's okay.  It never intended to have any seriousness to it.  It reveled in its silliness.  And it succeeded in being the type of show it set out to be.

Particularly Plimpton was fantastic as Virginia.  On of my favorite parts of the show was her constant mis-remembering of famous sayings or even common words.

And Dillahunt for me was a breakout star.  His Burt was so full of enthusiasm and sincerity, he through himself completely into whatever excited him.  It was so fun to watch him get excited or upset but lacking the intelligence or vocabulary to explain why.  His complete commitment to the character brought out major laughs.


"Jimmy's Fake Girlfriend" (2x14)
As you can see, Raising Hope has a long threshold.  It begins with Burt and Virginia trying to find a hobby to share in common.  Their are attempts are as varied as they are hysterical.  But the crux of the episode is around Jimmy's love for Sabrina (Shannon Woodward), who has a jerk boyfriend named Wyatt.  This had been the running romantic tension of the series.  But Virginia decides to step up Jimmy's game by making Sabrina jealous.  She gets a local actress, Tisdale, to pretend to be his girlfriend.

The results are not only incredibly funny, but the last 10 minutes are incredibly romantic and sweet with all of the silly energy that this show can muster.

The reason why this is the threshold, is because it reflects back on all that has come before it and you see how the events, the tone, and the style all fit together to create a very nice and humorous journey.  It is easy to mistake Raising Hope as a stinging satire of stupid Americans.  But that is not what it is about.  The Chances may not have brains, but they have heart and they have drive.   You can now go back and see the rest of the series in this warm, comforting light.

"Modern Wedding" (3x14)
The "Moonlighting Curse" referes to a show that loses its luster after the 2 leads end the will-they-won't-they and finally get together.  That didn't happen in Raising Hope until Jimmy and Sabrina get married.  The episode is actually very good and has a lot of heart.  But this radically shifts the dynamic of the show.  Not only do Jimmy and Sabrina no longer live in the funny squalor of the Chance home, but the center of the show shifts from Jimmy raising Hope to the adventures of Burt and Virginia.

This should have been an improvement because Plimpton and Dillahunt are the best and funniest performers on the show.  But because of this, the original main character's adventures are relegated to B-story level and it you feel some of the wind removed from the creative sales.

"I Want My Baby Back, Baby Back, Baby Back." (2x22)
It turns out that Hope's mother survived her execution and she wants custody of her baby.  The result is a loony legal fiasco and a trial that revisits the highlights of the series.  This is the funniest episode of the show that I've watched over and over.

The best part is the ending.  It is one of the only times these show feels like it touches some more serious emotions.  I remember watching and feeling a little surprised by this and touched.  And then it ends with a gag that had me on the floor.


Raising Hope is good television in the sense that you watch an episode and you feel better.  It's goal is simply to get an audience lose themselves in a world sillier than our own and feel the pleasure of some spontaneous laughs.  And that is no bad thing.