Tuesday, April 30, 2013

John Williams To Score More STAR WARS

photo by TashTish

There is no composer out there like John Williams, in movies or in general.

And JJ Abrams, director of Star Wars Episode VII has said that Williams will compose the score for the new movie.

I was wondering what Abrams would do about the score.  I actually thought he would turn to long time collaborator Michael Giancchino, who worked with him on Lost, Star Trek and Super 8.

But John William's music IS Star Wars.  He turned a great movie into a legend.

I'm having a hard enough time dealing with the idea of a Superman movie without his score.  The fanboy in me is overwhelmed with delight.  I can't wait to hold that new Star Wars CD in my hand.

(yes I still buy CDs)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #2 - Mel Gibson

photo  by Georges Biard

-The Passion of the Christ

-The Man Without a Face



It is hard to describe the immense talent Mel Gibson has as a director.  We are often distracted by his chaotic personal life.  Or we think of him first as a powerful actor.  But his real potency is in his mastery of the director's craft.

His first foray into directing was a fine movie called The Man Without a Face.  It was a very simple, period-piece drama that is more notable for its writing and acting than its directing.

But then he followed that up with the amazing Braveheart.  A little background: I had just seen the movie Rob Roy, another film about the struggles of the Scottish against the English.  It was epic and it was awful.  I came to Braveheart with very low expectations.   And I find myself unable to adequately explain the impact this movie had.  First of all, Gibson immediately makes you fall in love with the pristine, majestic landscapes of Scotland with his sweeping camera movements accompanied by the achingly beautiful bagpipes.  And that is just within the first 10 seconds.

But the moment I came to realize Gibson's brilliance was after Murron had been captured.  Before this scene, Gibson deftly used light, shadow, slow motion, and music to cast a love spell on you to become completely invested in the romance on screen between his William and Murron.  But then it is harshily interrupted by the brutality of the English.  Not only was the violence of her capture jarring, he played one of the most heartbreaking slight-of-hands I had ever seen.  Murron is tied to a post and she looks out at the horizon.  We get her POV of the hills where she scans for William.  And we know he's coming.  He has to.  We are geared up for the big rescue seen.  But then her throat is unceremoniously slit.

At that point, my jaw hit the floor.  I do not know if other people had the same reaction, but I felt my heart drop out from under me.  Not only had I not seen this coming, but Gibson had created in me a shock from losing all my hope of her rescue to a rage at the injustice of her death.

And then the next scene once again shows his mastery of the timing.  He draws out the tension like a blade until it is unbearable.  And I love the moment that William stares into the eyes of the English solider who approaches.  Gibson forces you to look at the humanity of the soldier.  He is just another man, like William.  He is not faceless.  Gibson makes you look straight at him right before William kills him with a mace.  Not only does he innovate this flourish by removing frames, but he confronts you with the horror of killing, even in the necessity of war.

I could continue to do a scene by scene analysis, but suffice to say that Gibson uses every visual tool he can to tell his story.  And in doing so, he transports the movie's epic themes into your heart.  Watching Braveheart makes your heart feel enlarged with courage and nobility.  It inspires.  Gibson not only re-invented the Hollywood battle scene (so much so that I've heard people often to other movies as having "Braveheart-type battles") but he knew how to use simplicity.  The final shot of the movie, with it's single image and single musical note, act as the final nail to seal the movie into your heart.

He brought this same skill to Apocalypto.  It is not nearly as good as his other films, but he once again showed his ability to tell a story visually.  Not only is it tense, frightening, and exciting, but he knows how to convey deep emotions without words.  There is a character in the movie who constantly fights with his nagging mother-in-law.  Throughout the beginning, they scream their venom at each other.  But then the entire village is captured and taken as slaves.  The mother-in-law is deemed useless and let go.  She then walks free as she and her son-in-law stare at each other.  In that moment you could see how much they regretted all of the animosity they shared as he was led away to certain death.

But Mel Gibson's chief contribution is the fact that he directed the greatest film ever made: The Passion of the Christ.  It is more than a movie.  There are people whose lives have been changed by experiencing The Passion.  And that is an apt way to describe what Gibson accomplished: you don't watch The Passion, you experience it.

Every shot, every angle, every edit is imbued with Gibson's expert touch.  I have never seen a more violent film, but I have never seen one more beautiful.  As a Catholic, I can say that though this movie does not have a lot of Jesus' preaching, it preaches better than most sermons.  How perfectly he conveys the meaning of the Eucharist by intercutting Christ raised on the cross and the words of consecration at the Last Supper as John watches in wonder!  What better way to help us understand Mary's agony than by flashing us back to the child Jesus stumbling!

The movie does not just penetrate the heart; it shatters it completely.

The goal of great art is to lift the veil of heaven so that we can glimpse at Beauty Itself.  There is no other movie that touches concretely that Beauty than Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

And that is why he has earned his place on this list.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Dragonheart Effect

Movies are a communal experience.  I know that movie watching is something that happens more and more on an individual basis now that we have quick access to them on all our mobile devices.  But I think that something about the art form will be truly lost if we lose group movie watching.

I know that going to the theater is not only expensive, but a hassle.  After paying for your ticket (extra if you see it in 3D, XD, Imax, Imax 3-D) and taking out a small home equity loan to get a medium popcorn and Junior Mints, you then have to sit in a large dark room full of strangers.  These are people from all different walks of life who were raised goodness knows what kind of manners.

Some people follow the basic etiquette of silence when the voices on the screen are talking.  Others seem to be as clueless as the apemen shouting at the 2001 monolith.  Some kick the back of your seat.  Others never stop fidgeting.  There are, of course, the obnoxious teenagers who are there more to make a spectacle of themselves because they cannot stand that people in a darkened theater are staring only at the giant screen in front of them.  And then there are the talkers.  One of my favorite lines from the show Firefly was from the character Shepherd Book who told someone, "You're going to end up in the special hell reserved for child molesters and people who talk in the theater."

I remember I was once at a packed screening of the movie Changing Lanes starring Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson.  In the middle of the movie, a cell phone rang.  The owner was apparently unaware that he was not sitting privately in his living room, but was surrounded by hundreds of people who paid money to hear the film and not his voice.  He proceeded to have a conversation with his acquaintance (I'm assuming that this person could not possibly have actual friends) at the top of his lungs.  I would be angrier at him.  But he was the most memorable thing about that movie.

My point is that I understand why people don't like to go out and see movies when it is easier, faster, and cheaper to do so on your own.  But watching with other people changes the film going experience. I'm not talking about the film's quality.  That is an semi-objective judgment about the merits of the film in the different aspects of movie making.  But there is the subjective enjoyment of a movie that is greatly impacted by those with whom you see it.

Have you ever argued with someone about a movie being good or bad?  Of course you have.  We all have.  But one of the reasons why it is so difficult to reconcile the two points of view is because often (not always) the two viewers do not have the same viewing experience.

I think that this is especially true of comedies.  I remember I sat down once and watched This is Spinal Tap by myself.  I found it meandering, pointless, and boring.  I could not understand why people liked this movie so much.  Then I happen to watch it again with a group of people.  I braced myself for a boring evening.  But to my surprise, I found myself laughing hysterically at most of the jokes.  The movie began to click.  I am convinced it was not so much a grand insight I had (although I finally realized that this movie was the template for shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation), but that I was in the presence of people who truly enjoyed it.  And that helped me enjoy it too.  This is the same experience I had with the movies Billy Madison and Swingers.

It doesn't always work.  This isn't simply a matter of bending to social pressures.  Sometimes you cannot fathom why those around like the movie you are watching.  My friends once tried to "correct" me of my ranking Caddyshack 2 over the original Caddyshack.  So they decided to hold a viewing of the first film to demonstrate to me how funny it was.

It didn't take.

But even though I still don't care for that movie (I know I am in the vast minority here), I did enjoy it MORE than had before because of the company I kept.

But the best example of this is what I call the "Dragonheart Effect."  Dragonheart was a movie that came out in the mid-'90's that had a talking dragon (Sean Connery) go on adventures with world-weary knight (Dennis Quaid).  When my group of friends made it to the theater, there weren't enough seats for all of us to sit together.  So half of us went to the front and the other to the back.

We all sat through the exact same movie in the exact same theater.  Unlike most teenagers, we did not constantly talk to each other during the movie.  But when we had finished the two groups of us got back together and we found that half of us loved the movie and the other half hated it.  And the division depended on where you sat.

Even without talking, I think something about the environment of people around has a deep impact on your film viewing experience.  Being with other people who enjoy something can enhance your enjoyment.  Being with other people who hate something can sour you on it too.  You can't force someone to like the movies that you like.  This is especially true if you hover over them at constantly check their expression to see if all the scenes are hitting them emotionally the same way they hit you.  But you can make the movie watching experience richer by sharing a movie with a group.

I've seen theater's jump with terror together (Dead Again).  I've heard it fill the air with a constant barrage of laughs (Ted).  I was once in a theater where people actually stood up and cheered (Attack of the Clones).  I've even been in theater's where the audience was stunned into profound silence together (Schindler's List).  There are very few movie-watching experiences as thrilling as being in a room full of people bonded emotionally by nothing more than the magic of the silver screen.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Trailer Time - Thor: The Dark World

The Marvel Universe is getting darker and darker.  Iron Man 3 looks dire and Thor: The Dark World is literally taking us deeper into darkness.  And I don't know about you, but I like it.

This teaser doesn't serve up much story, and it shouldn't.  It should give you a feel for the emotions that will pop up during the movie.  I like the subtle things like Sif giving Jane the death glare.  But I also like the not-so-subtle things like Thor on his knees shouting "NOOOOOOO!"

I think it looks good.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #3 - James Cameron

photo by Towpilot

-Terminator 2: Judgment Day
-The Abyss

-True Lies

-Pirahanna 2: The Spawning (though he only worked on that for a few days)

For over 10 years, James Cameron's Titanic was the highest grossing movie of all time at over $658 million dollars domestic.  Only one director could unseat James Cameron's record: James Cameron.  That is what he did with his follow up film, Avatar.

James Cameron has not made many movies in his over-3-decades-long career.  But each movie is an event.  One of the things I have always admired about him is that he always seeks to challenge himself and push the boundaries of movie-making.

His breakout movie, of course, was the original Terminator.  This could have easily been brushed on the dustbin of b-movie, sci-fi schlock.  But Cameron understood that you needed to start with a compelling story.  He also understood that the visuals needed to tell you the story.  It is amazing how terrifying Arnold Schwarzenegger was in that role.  He says very little, but Cameron always shoots him with such dramatic lighting and low angles that you feel his hulking presence bearing down on you the entire film.  This contrasts the raw humanity of Sarah and Kyle as they get beat up both physically and emotionally throughout the piece.

He then took a major risk when he made a sequel to one of the most revered science fiction movies of all time: Alien.  People told him that if it was bad, it would end his career.  If it was good, they'd give all the credit to Ridley Scott, the director of the first.  But Cameron had a story to tell.  And dare I say, he had a better story to tell than Scott.  I have always maintained that Aliens is the best action movie I have ever seen.  It is not because of the visual action spectacle alone.  The thing that sets it apart is that you cannot help but attach to all of the surviving characters.  You root for them and feel a real sense of jeopardy in losing them.  Aliens shows that Cameron knows how to make a movie that is both scary, exciting, and dramatically compelling.  Sigourney Weaver got a Best Actress nomination for her performance, something very rare for an action movie but well deserved.  It should also be noted his use of visual catharsis.  The scene with the loader is set up in the beginning, and there is some flaw in the rationale for using that in battle when you have a ship full of weapons.  But there is a unique thrill watching Ripley stand there in her "battle-suit" to go mano-a-mano with the queen.  It is intensely satisfying.

The Abyss was a box office disappointment, but I think it is one of his most underrated films.  The enormous challenge of filming underwater is hard to describe.  But the movie is not only beautiful visually, but it is extremely compelling.  To this day, I cannot watch the sub drowning scene without desperately trying to catch my breath:

People mostly note The Abyss for the step forward it presented in digital film-making, with the water pod

It is not a perfect movie.  It is a bit too long, too preachy, and very dour on the military (which we will see again in Avatar).  But it also creates an exciting sense of wonder and great heroic courage in the character of Bud.

Terminator 2 was another risk, where Cameron decided to make his iconic villain into the hero.  Again, most people will focus on the monumental technical achievement of T2, and rightly so because it is still spectacular to watch.  But he also demonstrates a mastery of the visuals.  He knows when to use slo-mo and not.  He knows when to use a digital effect and when to go practical.  The helicopter chase has within it the most dangerous stunt ever put on film:

But again, Cameron knows that this is all done to serve the story.  It all builds to an ending that I still find emotionally compelling, one that is noble and sad.

And then we have Titanic.

Some people forget that everyone was expecting Titanic to be a massive failure.  It was tens of millions of dollars over budget, it had not major stars, it was a dramatic period piece, most everyone dies so there would be no sequel, and the premiere kept getting pushed back.

But Cameron once again demonstrated that the spectacle was there to serve the emotional ends of the story.  We all knew that the Titanic was an impressive ship, but he showed you with his visuals as you take in the glory of this amazing ship.  He fills you with a sense of wonder, hope, and power as Jack shouts "I'm the king of the world!"  And he slowly turns the knife as that hope sinks below the icy depths.  We all want to believe in a love that is stronger than death.  And Cameron delivers it.  Who can forget one his most compellingly beautiful images:

And that is why it works so well and it was the number one movie at the box office for 15 weeks.  He used every visual skill at his disposal to not just give a feast for the eyes, but he used them as laser-guided arrows to hit you in the heart.  I know that this movie has a lot of hater backlash, but I would encourage anyone to watch it again and note the craft that Cameron uses as a director.

Even in his last movie, Avatar, you can see that skill at work.  Avatar's major flaw is its story.  Unlike his other movies it is difficult to connect to the story.  He imports his preachiness and military dourness from The Abyss.  But no one can deny the wondrous visuals of the film.  It was one of the most amazing 3-D experiences I have ever had.  And despite myself, I was moved by that final shot.

James Cameron never stops trying to stretch himself as a film-maker, and as a result he has given us some truly great movies.  But by him leading the way he has changed the movie making process forever.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Look, Up in the Sky!

On the evening of June 12th, 1932, a Jewish immigrant named Max was working the late shift at a second hand clothes store in Cleveland, Ohio.  It was the in the middle of the great depression.  Some men, like Max, worked long hours at multiple jobs like the clothing store.  Other men that night decided to make their money by holding up the place.  During the robbery, Max was shot and killed.

His 17-year-old son, Jerry was now left fatherless because of a violent man's bullet.  Jerry could read all about the details of what happened in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the next morning in a news report printed next to an editorial that suggested that maybe it was time for someone outside the law to do something about crime.  But even is something was done immediately, it was too late to save Max.  Jerry's father died because sadly, like all of us, he was not bulletproof.

So Jerry gave to the world a man was.

This past Thursday was April 18th, 2013.  It was the 75th anniversary of when Action Comics #1 was published.  There have been hundreds of comic book titles printed over the years, but this one is special.  This was the first appearance of of Superman.

Superman was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Schuster.  Among the pantheon of superhero gods, the Last Son of Krypton is preeminent above them all.  He is the first to break through the bonds and boundaries of simple "funny books" and become a worldwide cultural phenomenon.

Superman captures the eye with his bright costume of bold primary colors.  He captures the imagination with his extraordinary, fantastic array of super powers.  And he captures our hopes.  He is dedicated to fighting the never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.

Superman is important.

I don't mean that he is popular, though he certainly is.  I don't mean that his name is ubiquitous across the globe, though it is.  And I don't mean that he is important only in terms of pop culture, though he is.

Superman is important because of what he does: he inspires.

I think that the heroes you have when you are young truly matter.  They are not just passing fancies or youthful diversions.  I believe that when you are young, you latch your mind and your heart onto what you think it means to be a hero.  For some of us, we look at our sports stars and idealize their talent and skill.  Others look to the actors and muscicians we see on our screens and we want to be as popular and pretty.  We buy their products.  We put up their posters.  We try to see them whenever we can.

We do so because our young minds cannot grasp what it is to be an older version of ourselves.  We try, but it the picture is too vague with too many mysterious variables.  But we can see grown ups now.  They are not vague.  They are concrete.  And we can imagine being them as they are.  And that matters.

I remember being a child and seeing what would become my favorite movie: Return of the Jedi.  I had waited years to see the final battle between one of my all time favorite heroes, Luke Skywalker, against the embodiment of all evil, Darth Vader.  After Luke's butt kicking in The Empire Strikes Back, I was hungry to see my hero vanquish the bad guy.  But to my surprise Luke kept resisting the battle.  He kept saying "I will not fight you."  And even though he momentarily clashed lightsabers, in the end he threw away his own weapon and was willing to die to save Vader's soul.

That scene had a profound impact on me because for the first time I think understood that the real hero is not the one who kills the bad guy but turns the bad guy good.  This is something I've carried with me from childhood into the man I am today.  All of us have the power to fight.  Few of us have the courage to save.  I learned that because Luke Skywalker taught me.  He was a role model.

And if you don't have the proper modeling, they may not have that proper foundation.  People complain about graphic violence in movies, TV, and video games.  Often these critics are dismissed as out of touch and unimportant.  But these voices are very correct when the point out that what our minds consume as children nourish the adult we become.  And it isn't the graphicness per se that is the problem.  Its the fact that there is so much needless cruelty on the part of today's heroes and icons.

That is why Superman is important.  People often mistake the appeal of Superman is the power.  As I said before, that is essential to him, but it also misses the point.  There are thousands of super heroes with powers like the Man of Steel.  As the Martian Manhunter once complained while he was lifting up a brick building, "I'm as strong as Superman.  Why does everyone always forget that?"

What sets Superman apart is that embodies the best of the American spirit.  He fights for truth in a world that says lying "as long as it doesn't hurt anybody" is a fine thing.  He fights for justice in a world where young children are killed by monsters with bombs in pressure cookers.  He fights the American way in a world that tries to squeeze us into mediocrity.  On this last point, I think it important to remember how American Superman is.

A few years ago, there were lots of headlines when Superman in the comic books renounced his American citizenship so he could be a citizen of the world.  I hated this.  We have to remember, that nearly every other country was built around ethnic background or geographic happenstance.  America is the only country founded on an idea.  We are built on the idea that if man is capable of extraordinary things if given the freedom to achieve them.  Superman embodies this.  His power is like our freedom.  And he uses that power to make the lives of others better.

When I was a child, I had a very clear picture of Superman.  I must have watched Christopher Reeve fly through the sky hundreds of times.  And I think Reeve understood what he was doing with the character.  He did not play him campy or naive.  He played him with total sincerity and faith in the ideals of what this country has to offer.  I could never imagine Superman cussing or stealing or being cruel to those weaker than him or putting himself before innocent people.  And the more I made Superman my hero, I saw myself in him.  Jerry Siegel did not just create a bulletproof father figure.  He created an iconic ideal to shape the character of children for generations.

If Superman did for others what he did for me, then he truly is important and it is right to celebrate a world with 75 years of Superman in it.  Unlike so much garbage floating around the popular culture, he does not draw our eyes to the gutter.  Nor does he makes us see only the world around us as it.  Superman makes us look at the world as it could be.  He makes us look up.

In the sky.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

New Star Wars Movie Every Year

News has just broken that Disney plans to make a new Star Wars movie every year.

Apparently, the plan is to do the new trilogy like the old.  But this time, instead of 2 years in between each, it will only be one year.   And then they will have a stand alone movie each year in between.  So it should look something like this:

2015: Star Wars Episode VII
2016: Stand Alone Star Wars Movie
2017: Star Wars Episode VIII
2018: Stand Alone Star Wars Movie
2019: Star Wars Episode IX

After that, the future is unknown.  This is a much more rapid turnover of films.  Obviously this will require more directors than just JJ Abrams.

I don't know if the stand-alones will be related to the new trilogy or if they will be something completely different, like the once rumored 7 Samurai-style Zack Snyder project.

I holding my anticipation until I find out more of the story, but this sounds good!

Trailer Time: Man of Steel Trailer # 3

I know that the big sweeping spectacle is what people will be drawn to in this trailer.  But as someone who is going through the adoption process and praying for a child, the part that got me deeply emotional was the scene between Clark and Jonathan Kent.

The Christological themes are even more pronounced to me in this trailer.  In that sense, it would make Jonathan Kent like St. Joseph.  He has to raise a child and be a model of what it is to be a man to one who is more than a man.

I also like the connection to Lois Lane as she is much more proactive in hunting down the Last Son of Krypton.

Anyway, I thought this trailer rocked.


New Evangelizers Post: Why Doesn't the Holy Spirit Have a Face?

I have a new article up at


I don’t know if you were like me growing up, but I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the nature of the Holy Spirit.  I knew He was important because He’s mentioned with the Father and the Son.  But unlike the Father and the Son, the Spirit has never been “personified.”

Of course the Holy Spirit is a Person in the literal sense; He is the third Person of the Holy Trinity.  But He has no face that my younger self could imagine.  I can see clearly the face of Jesus in my mind’s eye, influenced by art and movies.  I can have some fuzzy image of God the Father because I have a concrete example of a father right in front of me.  But not so with the Spirit.  So in my childish understanding, I envisioned the Trinity as the Father sitting there with Jesus and in between them was their pet bird: The Holy Spirit...

Read the whole thing here

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Trailer Time: The Hunger Games-Catching Fire

WARNING: Do not watch this trailer if you have not seen the first Hunger Games movie.

I thought the first Hunger Games movie was very well done.  I had a knot in my stomach from the beginning until the end, which means that it was very effective and creating tension.  Jennifer Lawrence is one of the excellent upcoming stars that has genuinely strong acting ability.

Having read the book, I like how they focus on the setup of the new story.  There is so much more yet to come!


Monday, April 15, 2013

Monday Poetry: An Easter Carol

Since we are still in the Easter Season, I thought this would be appropriate:

An Easter Carol by Christina G. Rossetti

                Spring bursts to-day, 
For Christ is risen and all the earth's at play. 

                Flash forth, thou Sun, 
The rain is over and gone, its work is done. 

                Winter is past, 
Sweet Spring is come at last, is come at last. 

                Bud, Fig and Vine, 
Bud, Olive, fat with fruit and oil and wine. 

                Break forth this morn 
In roses, thou but yesterday a Thorn. 

                Uplift thy head, 
O pure white Lily through the Winter dead. 

                Beside your dams 
Leap and rejoice, you merry-making Lambs. 

                All Herds and Flocks 
Rejoice, all Beasts of thickets and of rocks. 

                Sing, Creatures, sing, 
Angels and Men and Birds and everything. 

                All notes of Doves 
Fill all our world: this is the time of loves.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #4 - Christopher Nolan

-Batman Begins
-The Dark Knight
-The Dark Knight Rises
-The Prestige



If I had to come up with one word that sums up Christopher Nolan's filmmaking its "respect."  I have never encountered a director who respects his audience enough to expect them to fully engage their intellects in a movie.  Of course mystery movies do this, but Nolan makes more than whodunits.  And you can watch any movie written by Aaron Sorkin and have hyper-jargon thrown at you which sounds smart, but is there more to show off the intellect of the writer than enlighten the audience.

Nolan doesn't try to show off in that sense.  Instead, he thinks of his audience as intelligent men and women who desire not simplicity, but complexity.  This does not mean that his movies are cold logic puzzles.  He also as an incredible knack for pulling at the heart strings at the same time he is stretching your mind.  He is one of the few directors that is a master of being evocative and provocative all at once.  Nolan makes you struggle with the big questions of life.

His worst movie is Insomnia.  But even that movie was incredibly well made.  It was bright with a dark atmosphere.  He also made the audience struggle with truth dilemmas.  Can you lie to bring about a greater good?  And if you do, will that greater good ever come about.  The movie's main weakness is that Pacino's main character is so unlikeable that it is difficult to care about him.  And his weariness as the movie moves on is potent, but it translates too much to making the audience feel weary.

His first major movie was Memento.  This fantastic film is one that I've rewatched many times.  In fact, the first time I rewatched it was immediately after I finished it the first time.  A lot has been made about the gimmick of the story structure: the movie is told in reverse chronological order.  And that truly is a wonderful feat of writing.  But I would like to concentrate on the directing.  Rather than filming at night with shadows, Nolan made a daytime noir.  But he replaced the darkness with receding colors like blues and tans to pull this sets and characters away from the audience, to give them that hard-edged emotional distance.  I love his use of subtle and not-so-subtle changes during the "flashback" scenes where Leonard is not only in black and white, but begins to speak in a stream of consciousness, documentary-style cadence.  All the while, he carries the strong emotional thread of revenge at his terrible loss while making you contemplate the nature of memory itself and how it can be manipulated.

The Prestige is probably his moodiest piece.  It is a wonderful character study about obsession.  The story, about two rival Victorian Era illusionists whose vendetta turns murderous, is incredible because Nolan has you root for both sides.  All the while you root for Hugh Jackman's character against Christian Bale's.  But at the same time you root for Christian Bale's character against Hugh Jackman's.  This is no easy trick, because the audience needs someone to get behind and it is much harder for them to root for someone if it means rooting against the other.  But as both of them slowly descend into darkness, we feel less anger at them and more pity and sadness.  We know them as good men who have been caught up in dark magic of their own making.  And the implications of the ending stay with you for a long time.

Many people point to Inception's multi-layered, trippy plot as its salient feature.  I respect that, but I think they overlook once again the emotional component at work throughout the movie.  Ultimately its a story of a man lost by tragedy trying to return to the ones he loves.  DiCaprio's performance is one of maturity and anguish, covered by professional training.  And visually, it is a stunning movie.  Nolan always prefers to use practical effects over digital.  This lends a tangibility to his dream world that makes it feel solid, like it could really hurt you, and not some mental illusion.  The spinning hallway fight is such a delight to watch.

And of course there is his Dark Knight Trilogy.  Much has already been said about this franchise: its grimness, the performances, the real-world grounding, etc.  All of this I concede.  But watching them back to back you notice a giant change between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.  If I didn't know any better, I would have said that there were different directors for each movie.  The first is heavy on sound-stages for hyper-stylized atmospheres.  The second has much more grounded visuals set against a real-world backdrop.  In other words, there are no ninjas in The Dark Knight.  That isn't to say one is bad and the other is not, but I find it so fascinating that he made 2 movies of such different flavor in the same universe.  And The Dark Knight Rises is a melding of both types successfully into one.  Nolan, famous for eschewing 3-D, maintains that the film already gives you three dimensional cues.  He knows how to fill up your senses and take your breath away.

Christopher Nolan has not made a bad movie.  I don't know that he can.  His next movie is still years away from release.  And I can't wait to see it.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sacramental Sex

Last week I wrote about the slow eradication of masculinity from our culture.  But that is only half of the story.  I don't think I adequately investigated why this was so problematic.  Getting rid or marginalizing masculinity (or femininity for that matter) will have a disastrous effect because of our human nature.

We should probably first make some distinctions.  The first one should be the terms sex and gender.  Often people use these words interchangeably, but they are not coterminous.  "Sex" refers to the biological difference between men and women.  Boys and girls are different.  If you don't get that, I can explain it to you.  All boys have something that no girl has.  Every guy has that little something not found with a woman.  You know what I'm talking about, right?  

The answer, of course, is the Y-chromosome (if you answer was something else, please get your mind out of the gutter.  This is a family friendly blog).

The presence or absence of the Y-chromosome determines if you are genetically male or female.  A man losing certain, um, appendages would not mean that he ceases to be male.  And for people who are physically hermaphroditic, the Y-chromosome will determine their sex.

Gender is a bit different.  This refers to all the differences between men and women that are not caused by biology.  Women wearing dresses, wearing makeup, playing with dolls or men wearing neckties, playing with action figures, and farting in each others' faces in order guess what they had for dinner the night before are all activities and behaviors that are not determined by biology.  Men can wear dresses.  Women can play with action figures.  There is nothing in our biology that would stop a woman from being the quarterback of a football team.  There is a limitation in biology if a man wanted to give birth to a baby.

Regarding gender, we need to make a further distinction.  It has become very popular to reduce all gender differences to social differences.  If there is a difference in gender behavior that is not specifically biological, then many social scientists say that it is simply a social construction.  Men don't wear dresses simply because society says so.  Women don't play football because society says so.  And to be sure, that is the case for many things in our culture.  And women have historically been kept away from achievement in politics and sciences because they were prevented from doing so.

But I am not so ready to accept that all of this is social programming.  The reason why is that there is more to our nature than biology and society.  

There is also the soul.

CS Lewis believed that gender was a spiritual concept.  There was something about our nature as men and women that was not just skin deep or marrow deep but soul deep.  The soul of a man is different than the soul of a woman.  In one of my favorite passages from anything Lewis wrote, he describes the masculine and feminine principle in a mysterious vision from Perelandra.  The main character meets the gods Mars (called Malacandra) and Venus (called Perelandra), the essence of Masculinity Itself and Femininity Itself (please forgive the extended quote):

 Mars shone with cold and morning colours, a little metallic - pure, hard, and bracing.... Venus glowed with a warm splendour, full of the suggestion of teeming vegetable life.

...Both the bodies were naked, and both were free from any sexual characteristics, either primary or secondary. That, one would have expected. But whence came this curious difference between them? He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore. One could try - Ransom has tried a hundred times to put it into words. He has said that Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody. He has said that Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre. He thinks that the first held in his hand something like a spear, but the hands of the other were open, with the palms towards him. But I don't know that any of these attempts has helped me much.

At all events what Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender. Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees? Ransom has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the word. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings. Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless. Masculine is not attenuated male, nor feminine attenuated female. On the contrary, the male and female of organic creatures are rather faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine. Their reproductive functions, their differences in strength and size, partly exhibit, but partly also confuse and misrepresent, the real polarity.

All this Ransom saw, as it were, with his own eyes. The two white creatures were sexless. But he of Malacandra was masculine (not male); she of Perelandra was feminine (not female). Malacandra seemed to him to have the look of one standing armed, at the ramparts of his own remote archaic world, in ceaseless vigilance, his eyes ever roaming the earthward horizon whence his danger came long ago. "A sailor's look," Ransom once said to me; "you know ... eyes that are impregnated with distance." But the eyes of Perelandra opened, as it were, inward, as if they were the curtained gateway to a world of waves and murmurings and wandering airs, of life that rocked in winds and splashed on mossy stones and descended as the dew and arose sunward in thin-spun delicacy of mist. On Mars the very forests are of stone; in Venus the lands swim.

Lewis tries to put into words a spiritual reality that we see as inextricably linked to the physical.  He reverses the common notion that sex is primary and gender is a social construction added later.  Instead, gender is a spiritual reality that all creation participates in.

I had trouble making sense of this until I heard a phrase from John Paul the Great's theology of the body.  In it, the pope called the body the "sacrament of the person."  The old school definition of a sacrament is "an outward sign of an invisible reality."  This is where the penny dropped for me.  There is an invisible, but real nature to our masculine and feminine souls that is expressed in an outward, physical way.  And that way we call the body.

This is why it is always going to be problematic to try and marginalize masculinity or femininity.  We cannot be genderless, because it is at the core of our being.  Our sex is sacramental.  It shows us who we are down to our souls.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Wednesday Comics: Age of Ultron 1-3

Marvel's big event book is out: Age of Ultron.

Writer Brian Michael Bendis has been building to this story for years.  For those who don't know, founding Avenger Ant-man (Hank Pym) once created a robot named Ultron.  But Ultron turned evil and has been trying to take over the world ever since.  And it would appear that Age of Ultron is the result.

The story begins after Ultron has already taken over the world.  New York and other cities are in ruins, with savage gangs roaming the desolation.  All the while hovering above them is the giant ship of Ultron.  Avenger Hawkeye stages a daring rescue of a captured Peter Parker, who is being held by the low-rent villain the Owl.  Apparently the Owl has some kind of deal with Ultron to deliver him super-powered people in exchange for free reign in NYC.

After the rescue, Spidey and Hawkeye meet up with what is left of the super-hero community.  They are not only scant in number but they are defeated in spirit.  And it is from this group that any kind of salvation must come.

Some reviewers complained about the slow pace of the book.  One said it was a 3 page story told across 22.  I disagree.  The beginning is so jarring, that it takes a little while to catch up.  The art by Bryan Hitch is beautiful.  It reminds me of his epic, cinematic take on the Ultimates a few years back.  Bendis' writing is also fairly sharp.  I actually like that he throws you into the middle of the story.  The good part about jumping ahead to Ultron's victory is that I knew every other reader was in the same boat with me.  I didn't feel like I had to have read the last 3 years of Avengers comics to understand what was going on.  It was a good jumping on point.

And the story has already had some very interesting twists which I will not spoil here.  The heroes are grasping at straws, but even those small threads give them enough hope to go on.  Bendis has also written some moments of great courage and sacrifice worthy of Marvel heroes.

While I am enjoying it, I am cautious.  My experience with Marvel is that they can deliver a strong opening to a book, but they can never quite close the deal on the ending.  Civil War, World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, The Infinity Gauntlet all blow you away in the first few issues, and then then end on a sour note.  I hope that is not the case here.  So far, I am enjoying the read.

4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Monday Poetry: The Roman Triptych II.3

In the Sistine the artist painted the Judgment.
The Judgment dominates the whole interior.
Here, the invisible End becomes poignant visibility.
This End is also the summit of transparency—such is the path of all generations.

Non omnis moriar.
What is imperishable in me
now stands face to face with Him Who Is!
This is what fills the central wall of the Sistine profusion of colour.

Do you remember, Adam? At the beginning he asked you "where are you?".
And you replied: "I hid myself from You because I was naked".
"Who told you that you were naked?"….
"The woman whom you put here with me" gave me the fruit....

All those who populate the central wall of the Sistine painting
bear in themselves the heritage of that reply of yours!
Of that question and that response!
Such is the End of your path.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #5 - Robert Zemeckis

photo by David Shankbone

Back to the Future
Back to the Future Part II
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Forrest Gump
Cast Away

Back to the Future Part III
What Lies Beneath
Romancing the Stone

Death Becomes Her

(some spoilers ahead)

When discussing my list of top directors, I find it fascinating that no one guessed that Robert Zemeckis would be on this list.  I understand that he has not made a great movie in a long while.  I don't know that he will ever make a great movie again, but that does not take away from what he has accomplished.

He has made some dreck, like Beowulf and Death Becomes Her.  But even these movies were strong visual spectacles.  His decent movies like Romancing the Stone were entertaining.  Stone was a fun adventure.  Contact was an interesting thought exercise about how we would react to aliens (although the movie lost me when the Christian character tries preaching to Jodie Foster after the two of them had just fornicated).  And What Lies Beneath had some genuine scares.  But let us look at his great accomplishments.

Back to the Future could have been a simple sci-fi story or a simple slapstick comedy.  And to be sure it has elements of both.  But this was not one of the top 10 grossing movies of the '80s simply because of the plot.  To be sure there was a generational crossover factor where kids and adults could enjoy the fresh and nostalgic.  But the power of the movie is in how exciting it was.  Zemeckis mined ever scene to get all of the visual thrills and gags he could, often at the same time.  In the scene where Marty is riding around on his skateboard being chased by Biff the action is exhilarating and hilarious.  The confluence of music, humor, and action as Marty jumps over the hood, through the seats and out the other side as the villains crash into the manure truck is tonally perfect.  To this day when I watch Doc Brown dangling from the clock tower trying to get the wires connected, I get a small knot in my stomach.  Back to the Future goes from good to great because of what Zemeckis does as a director.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a movie that I think is very misunderstood in retrospect.  People remember it as children's cartoon movie.  It is not.  It is a very strange thing that I have never encountered ever before or since: it is a Looney Tunes noir.  Zemeckis mixed the tone of classic film noir and injected it into a zany cartoon reality.  The miracle of it is that he gets both contradictory genres to fit perfectly.  The movie is silly, but that never takes away from the real danger and tension.  Judge Doom is cartoonish and terrifying.  Toon Town is a place of child-like wonder, but it is also a kind of hell where the laws of logic no longer apply.  This movie should fail.  It should either be too dark to accommodate the silliness.  Or it should be to silly to give it any gravity.  But Zemeckis pulls off the perfect balancing act.

Zemeckis' most respected film is Forrest Gump, for which he won an Oscar.  This is also a film that I think was misunderstood at the time.  It came out the same year as Pulp Fiction and I think movie critics held up the two as competing views of life: one optimistic and the other pessimistic.  I think they oversimplified Forrest Gump because of the over-the-top parts, like Forrest mooning the president or running touchdowns.  But Zemeckis once again used the tonal differences to work for, not against each other.  Note the scene where Forrest is describing the different kinds of rain in Vietnam in his jokey narration only to have it broken into by Viet Cong gunfire.  He set the humor in relief against the violence to give it greater shock.  And while Forrest is generally positive in life, he suffers great tragedy that messes with his head.  All the while Zemeckis makes the movie so visually stunning.  At the end when Forrest is describing his adventures to Jenny it hits you how varied and beautiful were the vistas that Zemeckis brought you.

But I think that his best film is Cast Away.  It is a bold achievement.  It suffers in the beginning and the end.  But that middle section is so incredible that I always forgive the rest.  I've mentioned before that the great John Nolte said that a good movie casts a spell on you and doesn't let go.  I am mesmerized by Cast Away.  Not only does Zemeckis get Hanks' best performance on screen (and that is saying a lot), he removes all of his safety nets as a director.  From the time of the plane crash until he leaves the island, there is no score.  He gives Chuck no monologue to explain his thoughts.  There is also no major conflict on the island for Chuck to overcome other than survival itself.  And the island is hell.  The constant sound of the waves always remind him of the invisible bars that cage him there.  Zemeckis had to use only the visuals to draw you in.  And he did it.  I've seen the movie several times, and I can't look away as Chuck struggles to survive.

And we cannot overlook what he did with Wilson.  Wilson is a volleyball.  Zemeckis never lets you forget that.  He is an inanimate object.  Even Chuck acknowledges that as he kicks him out.  And yet I  always get emotional at Wilson floating away.  I remember being in the theater as people were gasping.

Over a volleyball.

But Zemeckis made you invest emotionally in that volleyball because he got Hanks to do it for you.  His absolute devastation is shown not only in his emotional breakdown, but Zemeckis shows you Chuck throwing away his oars.  The heartbreak he feels is real, even if he knows, and the audience knows Wilson is not.

Zemeckis may be past his prime as a director.  I hope not.  He has been leading the way for motion-capture CGI movies like Beowulf, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol.   I think he still has a lot of skill left in him and I think he can still make great movies.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

50 Shades of Missing Masculinity

Sad as it is, the book 50 Shades of Gray has sold over 65 million copies around the world.  For those who are unfamiliar, it is about a young, intelligent, ambitious young woman who finds herself drawn to a handsome young man who is into sado-masachism.  In the book, she willingly participates in being dominated by a man and it is described in lustful detail for several pages.

Now, this is not a book review, since I have not read it.  It would be wrong of me to comment on the quality of the writing, character development, plot structure, diction, etc because I am in no position to do so.  Whether or not this book is grand literature or illiterate drivel is not the point I would like to make.  Instead I thought I would explore why a book like this is so popular.

It is a mystery to me.  Perhaps it is incredibly well written.  But let us leave that theory aside for the moment.  There are many well-written, unread books in the world.  Particularly, this book is popular among women.  And that is what I find deserves some attention.  This is not a book about a woman becoming sexual aggressive and taking control of her life.  It is about a woman who submits to being treated like an inferior for the pleasure of another.  (Forgive me as I try to write vaguely about the details, because too much description of an erotic thing becomes an erotic thing).

So why, in this day and age when we came through the Women's Liberation movement would so many women be attracted to a relationship that was so clearly unhealthy?  I think the answer lies in something missing from our culture: masculinity.

I think that it was a misunderstanding of feminism that many held masculinity to be a negative.  A popular slogan of feminist icon Gloria Steinem was "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle."  When I was in college I took a course called Philosophy of Woman taught by a radical feminist professor.  It was abundantly clear from the lecture and the texts that the problem with society was that we acknowledged any difference between the sexes.

It was argued that acknowledging and reinforcing those differences was caused by and resulted in chauvinism, which is the belief that because men and women are different, men are superior.  In the chauvinist's ideal society, men have all of the power and influence and women are treated like commodities.  The radical feminist believed that in order make sure that one sex is held superior over another, all gender differences should be abolished.  In an ideal society for the radical feminist, you should walk into a room and based on all outward appearance including clothing, hair, makeup, muscle mass, etc, you would not be able to tell who was a man and who was a woman.

Of course the wise philosopher Dr. Peter Kreeft astutely pointed out that even though the chauvinist and the radial feminist are opposed to each other, they make the same logical mistake.  They both assume that any difference is a difference in value.  Air and water are different, but that does not mean that you can live without one of them.  Just because men and women are different, it does not therefore necessitate that this difference should mean one is better than another.

Be that as it may, the influence of modern philosophies has led to a demasculinization of pop culture, particularly television.  Look at Ray Romano's character on Everybody Loves Raymond.  The patriarch of his family, he is in no way assertive or strong.  He offers no real guidance or discipline to his children.  He cowers to his wife and his mother.

But he is not the only offender.  The most popular sitcom today is The Big Bang Theory.  None of the lead males carry traditionally masculine traits besides their raging libidos.  They are emotional adolescents never growing up into real men.

A real man has firmness of the will, with courage to act, and boldness in conviction.  A real man does not seek a confrontation, but will not shy away from one if it is for the right.  Yet I can remember through much of my college days that these traits were frowned upon as brutish, stubborn, insensitive, and violent.  We were constantly taught that masculinity was simple social convention that trained boys to be bullies.  As a result, I believe, we've pushed masculinity

Some may point to other areas of pop culture like hip-hop music or movies like The Hangover which show men being assertive to the point of overbearing machismo.  But that is the point: this is not real masculinity.  It is a parody, an ape of real masculinity.  But when you starve society of an integral part of human nature, they are going to hunger for it or anything that resembles it.  When you are hungry, you may it things that would normally repulse you.

It makes sense that if we make our men less and less masculine that there would be those in our society who would turn to things which should be naturally repellent.  Books like 50 Shades of Gray portray a twisted, warped masculinity where boldness is dominance and strength is mere violence.  And yet when starved of masculine nature, some latch onto whatever it can find that is like it.

This applies not just to women, but to men as well.  Boys learn to be men by watching other men.  Who are their role models?  How do they see men behave and interact with others?  Is the way to a woman's heart to be like Joey, Chandler, and Ross?  Or should they be Lotharios like on Two and a Half Men or Game of Thrones?

To suppress masculinity from our culture is to leave a giant vacuum that invites more inadequate substitutes to try and fill the void.  And that which we should naturally reject as perverse, like the treating of a woman like an object of lust and violence, becomes more mainstream.  That which should be black and white as been turned into too many shades of gray.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

New Evangelizers Post: Pope Francis - What's in a Name?

I have a new article up at

After our new Holy Father was chosen by God, I had an emotional reaction to his choice of the name Francis.  Perhaps it was because I had a Franciscan education or because it was a novel name, but I thought it was worth a reflection.

You can read the entire article here

Wednesday Comics: Marvel Now #1's Part 4

Marvel has been churning out new number one issues over the course of the past few months, rather than doing the massive company-wide reboot that DC did.  So far it has been a fairly mixed bag, with some pretty good stuff inside.  Here is another wave of number one issue reviews.


This is actually a review of 2 issues.  The first is issue 0.1.  First let me say that I am actually annoyed at the novelty numbering system.  I was never a fan of having an issue #0, #-1, #1,000,000, or whatever.  Having said that, the story in the comic is actually very good.

Brian Michael Bendis tells the origin of the leader of the Guardians, Star Lord.  His alien father crash lands in a remote Colorado forest and meets a human woman.  I do not want to give the story away, but what I liked about it was that it was a very human, romantic, familial story surrounded by science fiction.

Issue #1 re-introduces the Guardians to readers.  This is a reboot of a series that came out a few years ago during the Annihilation crossover.  I am more familiar with the original Guardians of the Galaxy, a group of aliens and humans having adventures in the 31st century of the Marvel Universe.  These Guardians are of this time.  Some are veterans of other cosmic comics like Warlock and the Infinity watch: you have Gamora, the green-skinned lady assassin, and Drax the Destroyer, also green and looking like a cosmic Conan.  Also in the group is a Ent-ish creature named Groot, who can apparently say only one sentence: "I am Groot."  And there is fan favorite Rocket Raccoon, a wise-cracking, hard-nosed fighter who looks like a raccoon.  This is also in addition to adding Iron Man to their roster.

The story brings the heroes together because the great alien races in the Marvel Universe have decided that Earth is now off limits.  This, however, only invites aggression to the planet and the Guardians must, well, guard it.

Bendis' writing is solid in tone and pacing.  Steve McNiven's art is outstanding.  It is reminiscent of some great Gary Frank.  He lets his characters be very expressive while keeping the action big.  I am going to keep picking up this book.

4 out of 5 stars


The original Defenders were like a poor man's Avengers, despite their impressive line-up.  The Defenders here refer to C-list heroes like Valkyrie and Misty Knight.  The book is meant to be a fun, slightly silly jaunt into adventure.

I found it tedious and lame.  Perhaps I am being overly harsh, but it did not grab my attention at all.  Towards the end they try to shock you with some gratuitous girl-on-girl kissing, but it felt much more like a ploy for attention rather than an insight into story or character.

I would give you an basic plot description, but it was literally THAT forgettable.  I won't be picking up Issue #2

1 out of 5 stars


I loved the original Nova, Richard Rider.  I never picked up his most recent series, but this story is Rider-free.  In the Marvel Universe, the Nova Corps is like DC's Green Lantern Corps: a cosmic police force made up of sentient beings from all over the universe and given special powers to fight the forces of darkness.

The story centers around a human Nova named Sam Alexander who returned to Earth to be with his wife, but has never been recalled by the Nova Corps.  He has not taken it well and is a drunk who works at his son Sam's high school as a janitor.  Sam does not believe any of his father's adventure stories and thinks that the old man is a crazy drunk.  Sam cannot wait to get away from his family, his town, his life.

But suddenly things change and his father disappears.  And then aliens appear to Sam and ask for the whereabouts of his father.

Jeff Loeb and Ed McGuiness reteam for this book and it is a welcome experience.  Loeb's writing has been off, understandably so, since the death of his son.  Sam Loeb's battle with bone cancer ended with his death at the age of 17.  Sam Alexander bears a striking physcial resemblance to Loeb's son and is a fitting tribute to him.  Geoff Johns did much the same thing with Stargirl (aka Courtney Whitmore) who he based on his sister Courtney who died on TWA flight 800.  Rather than being maudlin, both Stargirl and Nova feel like celebrations of lives of those who are gone.

And Loeb's writing is sharp, bold, and fun.  This first issue is the best thing he has written in years.  McGuiness's cartoonish art (that is not a pejorative) is a big plus to the tone and feel of the book.  I don't know where the story is going, but I would like to find out.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Trailer Time: Before Midnight

This is third in what has now been called The Decade Trilogy.  Before Sunrise was a little independent movie staring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as two strangers on a train in Europe who meet, connect, and spend the next 12 hours together before they have to part.

Before Sunset takes place 10 years later with the same actors to see how they've changed.

And now Before Midnight brings us back another decade later to these characters again.

Here's the thing: I can't say that the movies are particularly good.  But they are fascinating.  It feels like a unique experience to see these actors and characters check in every 10 years.  I would love if the series kept going into old age.

Charity of the Month: St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and ALSAC are registered trademarks.

The Charity of the Month is St. Jude.

I'm sure most of you have seen the commercials of children sick with cancer being treated at St. Jude. And I know, like most of you, there are very few things in this world more upsetting than a child with cancer.

According to their profile, St. Jude does not turn down children who cannot pay.  Donations, therefore, are essential to making sure poor children can get cancer treatment.

Please keep these children and their families in your prayers through the intercession of St Jude and St. Peregrine.

And please consider donating here.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Film Review: Oz- The Great and Powerful

Sometimes the success or failure of a movie comes down to a choice done long before cameras role: casting.  Now matter how well everything else fits together, if the casting is wrong, it will drag the entire production down.  That was the case where Jason Robard's Brutus almost ruined the entire movie of Julius Caesar.  And the same is the case with James Franco as the Wizard of Oz.

It is partly not his fault.  I happen to be burdened with the knowledge of who was supposed to play the part and I could not help but see that actor do a better job (I will refrain from mentioning who, in case this knowledge has the same negative effect for you, dear reader).  Franco is not a bad actor, but he is wrong for the part.  Too often he was clearly performing, not acting.  With exception of the scene where Oz first encounters the China Girl, I had trouble believing him in the part.

And that is a shame because the movie is actually fairly solid.  Franco plays the eponymous Oz, who is a traveling circus magician and all around Lothario and humbug.  While traveling through Kansas, he encounters his local girlfriend Annie (Michelle Williams) who informs him that someone has proposed to her.  She will say yes if he does not give her a reason not to.  Oz, however, cannot be tied down so.  As he says, "I don't want to be a good man.  I want to be a great one."  And this theme sets up his character's journey throughout the rest of the picture.  In an effort to escape a jealous boyfriend, Oz escapes in a balloon only to get taken up by a twister to the Land of Oz.

There he encounters the good witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) who says that there was a prophecy from the now-dead king that there would come a wizard with the same name as their land who would set them free.  Oz sees only opportunities for personal wealth and glory and so attempts to charm both Theodora and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weiss).  Evanora is much more duplicitous and cunning than Theodora and sets Oz off to kill the evil witch.  Along the way he gains a flying monkey companion, Finley (Zach Braff), and a girl who is a living China Doll (Joey King).

One of the problems prequels is that you know where the story has to go in order to line up with the rest of the series.  This is also a problem caused often caused by movie trailers that reveal too much of the plot to allow for surprises.  But pleasantly, there are some real unexpected twists and turns in the story that I did not see coming.  Whether by skillfull misdirect or my own obliviousness, it was very nice to be surprised when I did not expect to be.

The story is thematically very strong.  Oz has to learn to become a hero not so much by overcoming the villains but by overcoming himself.  When he learns to use his skills as a flim-flam man for good instead of selfishness, you begin to see his real "magic."  His early acts of greed and ego have negative consequences that have lasting effects.  While lying and deception are incompatible with Christianity, I found these themes to have a strong resonance to the life of the faith.  Our actions, good and evil, have consequences to the souls of others.  Also, if we surrender ourselves to God's goodness, he can take all of out traits, our strengths and weakness, and use them for His greater good.

Sam Raimi's directing is matched perfectly to the story.  He never tries to make Oz look real like Middle-Earth or Narnia.  It has a cartoonish quality which fits the story.  It is bright, bold, and amazingly colorful.  The early parts in Kansas are not only in black and white, but in a square aspect ratio.  But even then, Raimi plays around with this by having things like a fire-breather's flame and flying debris push out past the smaller frame.  Raimi makes the story fun and vivid.  However, it is also a bit scary.  I would not take a small child to see this, because I believe it would give them nightmares.  I'm not just talking about the flying monkeys, but Raimi also has a few of his classic Evil Dead type scares in Oz.  This is the one big overstep on his part in this children's film.

The weakest part is the acting.  Because this is geared toward the young, most of the actors play the characters broad and big.  This is fine except it often feels like their reading lines instead of inhabiting a character.  And Franco does this more than any of them.  He kept drawing me out of the movie and noticing his acting.  The great John Nolte said that a great movie should cast a spell on you and never let go.  Franco, as the Wizard, should help cast that spell, not dispel it.

But despite this, Oz is a fine and fun movie, worth seeing.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Monday Poetry: Roman Triptych II.2

Here is the next installment of JP2's poetic reflection on the Sistine Chapel

2. Image and likeness
"God created man in his image,
male and female he created them
and God saw that it was very good.
Naked they were and did not feel shame".

Was it possible?
Do not ask those who are contemporary, but ask Michelangelo
(and perhaps the contemporaries as well!?).
Ask the Sistine.
How much is said here, on these walls!

The beginning is invisible. Everything here points to it.
All this abundant visibility, released by human genius.
And the End too is invisible,
though here, traveller, your eyes are caught
by the vision of the Last Judgment.
How make the invisible visible,
how penetrate beyond the bounds of good and evil?

The Beginning and the End, invisible, pierce us from these walls.