Wednesday, April 30, 2014

New Evangelizers Post: The Hypocrisy Problem

I have a new article up at
Anyone who has tried to pass on the Gospel, be it in the classroom, in the home, or every day life, has encountered the hypocrisy problem.

We are calling people to goodness and holiness.  Yet most of us are keenly aware of how we lack those qualities.

Who are we to tell people how to live when we are not living as we should?  And let’s admit, one of the biggest impediments people have to entering into the faith is their experience of Christians not living as they should.

So what are we to do?

Here are some things to remember.

You can read the entire article here.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday Best: Top 25 Television Comedies of All time

What makes a good comedy?

I can tell you that this is not easy to answer.  I've made a number of low-budget films, both comedies and dramas.  And I can tell you that the comedies are much more difficult.

There is a subjective nature to comedy that makes it a little less universal than tragedy.  I can recognize the humor in someone like a Tina Fey, but she just doesn't make me laugh.  I know others who feel the same way about those I find hilarious like Monty Python.

So how do you come up with criteria for something this diverse and difficult to pin down.  Well, when composing my list of the top 25 television comedies, here are a few ground rules.

1.  Greatness is determined mostly by timelessness.
There are some comedies that are very funny in their time and place, but they do not age well.  This is especially true of comedies that try to capture the zeitgeist of an age or try to hard to be trendy and topical.  South Park has some hilarious moments and episodes, but you can feel its age very quickly.  30 years from now, I'm not sure how much people will enjoy their humor.  I Love Lucy on the other hand, can be enjoyed generation after generation.

If the humor can withstand the test of time, it indicates that it has touched on something universal and great.

2.  Series length is not a determination of greatness.
There are some shows that are very popular and run for year, but are not very good (I'm looking at you, Two and a Half Men).  But there are some that are great but are not appreciated enough in their time (Arrested Development).  There are even some great series that last only a season.  So the number of episodes will not be a determining factor (though it may be brought up).

3.  Drama does not make the show a great comedy.
The mixture of drama into comedy can be incredibly powerful.  Juxtaposing laughter with tears can be an incredibly cathartic experience.  But some think that by adding dramatic elements, having that "very special episode," makes the show better in and of itself.  I don't think that Diff'rent Strokes became a better show because of what happened to Dudley in the bike shop.  The addition of dramatic elements can help make a comedy better only if it gives you a strong emotional investment in the characters and thus you are able to laugh with them more.

4.  Sketch and variety shows do not apply.
One of the funniest shows I have ever seen in my life is Mystery Science Theater 3000.  But the type of skill necessary for righting good zingers and constructing a funny narrative are two different animals.  So as funny as shows like Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, they are not on this list.

5.  "Shark Jumping" does not make a show bad.
Unlike the tight narrative of a film feature, most TV shows are filled with dozens of hours of content.  The course of years can dull the sharp edge of wit.  This is a common phenomenon.  But for the purposes of this list, we will focus on when the show was working at its best and not how it limped past its prime.  This does not mean that bad episodes do not have an effect.  It is possible that a series can diverge so badly that it ruins all that has come before.  But unless that is the case, we will accept that some shows will eventually recede in quality.

6.  Repeatability is key.
Some jokes are funny once and then never again.  This is particularly true of shock humor, which loses all of its hilarity once the outrageousness is gone.  But a great joke is one that you can tell repeatedly and it still tickles you.  The same is true of a good comedy.  A truly and deeply funny show is one that you can revisit and enjoy again and even find new angles of humor.

7.  The list is based on current television.
I am taking each series as it is now.  It is much easier to make a determination of a series after their run is complete.  But some of the series on this list are very new and are only getting started.  I will take them as they are now.  They may, in the end, turn out to be terrible.  But I can only work with what I have seen.

Tune in next week for the list to begin.

Pope St. John Paul the Great

Today is a wonderful day.  Even though I was born during the papacy of Paul VI, the first pope I remember was John Paul II.

I know that there are a lot of people who would like the Church to remove much of its ceremony and pageantry.  And there is something to be said about removing much of the monetary ostentation.  But I can still see John Paul so vividly: a figure standing tall in his robes like Gandalf the White.  He was a singular figure.  To my child's mind, there was no one else like him in the world.  He was in every way the visible head of the Church.

There is so much to write about the man.  I will not attempt to do so here, since others today have been doing such a wonderful job.  I would like to only give you my memories of the man.

I remember him smiling all the time.  He projected a strong sense of kindness with his demeanour and his eyes.  I don't remember when he was shot.  But I do remember being told about it and how he went to the prison and embraced and forgave his would-be assassin.  I was young, but I remember thinking, "Of course.  That's what Jesus would do."  It seems so obvious to the child's mind: he is supposed to be holy.

As I became older I learned more about his life and began to read his works.  As I entered my teens and went off to college, I became very protective of him.  He was my pope.  I remember being on a field trip and one of my classmates went on a rant against him saying things like "Who the hell does he think he is?"  I was waiting for my religion professor to correct her, only to find that she joined in the attacks.  I wish I had jumped in, but I was very timid.

In one of my classes I decided to write an explanation of his theology of Woman.  It was fascinating to me that my classmates were very open-minded even if they did not agree.  My professors were the ones who closed their minds to different philosophies.

And as he aged, I watched his body become racked with pain.  His easy smile was gone, replaced with a permanent scowl.  How many of us would let vanity plague our thoughts and worry about how people would remember us in our last years as opposed to our more attractive ones.  But John Paul II did not shy away from the suffering.  He embraced the cross of Christ.  I was a always enamored with the crucifix he chose as Pontiff.  It was was not ornate, but wiry and knotted.  It gave a very tangible sense of pain.  And he always held that crucifix high above him as if to say, "Do not be afraid."

I saw him in person only once.  I was at World Youth Day in Toronto and I happen to be along the route that his "Popemobile" took.  I was only about 20 feet away when he passed.

It is hard to describe what that experience was like.  I was in the presence of greatness.  But it wasn't like meeting a celebrity or head of state.  To see him with my own eyes, to see him as he was...

Walter Hooper was CS Lewis' friend and biographer.  He was called to the Vatican to meet the newly elected John Paul II, who was a fan of Lewis' writings.  When Hooper saw the pope, he said that it it "was like meeting Aslan."

Hooper's words were perfect in describing my own impression of the man.  It was almost scary to see him.  Even though he could barely walk and was hunched over by the ravages of time, there was a power that radiated out of him.

He life was such a constant presence in my life as a Catholic that I couldn't help but be shocked when he died, despite his age and deteriorating health.  I had just finished going to confession and as we were leaving, the bells began to toll.  We found it odd, so we turned on the radio and heard about his passing.

I feel so blessed to have been alive during his papacy.  I am even happier that I have him now as a friend in Heaven who is praying for a sinner like me before the Throne of God.

Pope St. John Paul the Great, pray for us!

Friday, April 25, 2014

TV Alert: Start Watching Agents of SHIELD

There was a lot of hype around Marvel's Agents of SHIELD when it first came out.  It was a television show set in the cinematic Marvel Universe.  How fun was that?

Over the course of several months, the show has received a tepid to negative response from many fans. Ratings have steadily declined.

I've enjoyed the show, but I could see what others were saying about contrived plots and bland chemistry.

All of that changed 3 episodes ago.

One of the unique synergistic things about the series is that it feeds off of the movie franchises.  When Thor: The Dark World came out, there was "cleanup" episode featuring our heroes dealing with the aftermath.  I was expecting a similar by-the-numbers episode regarding Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Boy, was I wrong.

To say that episode 17 was a game changer is an understatement.  Using the plot of the Captain America movie, we see the entire world of our heroes change forever.

It feels almost like the show is just beginning.  The first 16 episodes were just prequels putting the pawns in place.  Marvel Comics did something similar with a series called Thunderbolts.  The Avengers were gone, so these new heroes came onto the scene.  But at the end of issue 3 there was a shocking twist.  What you thought was just another generic superhero story turned out to be something much more.

And Agents of SHIELD has become just that.  After establishing the universe, everything has been changed.  The last 3 episodes have been edge-of-your-seat nail-biters.  And with only 3 episodes left, it is leading to a big conclusion.

If you've given up on this series, catch up on Hulu and come back to what could be one of the best shows on television now.  We'll see if it lasts.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sunday Best: Movies to Watch on Easter

There are 3 movies that I would recommend for Easter viewing.

1.  The 10 Commandments:

This has been an annual television staple on Easter for years.  It is the prototypical Hollywood religious epic.  To this day it it still filled with power and wonder and color and majesty.  I know very few people who can imagine Moses without thinking of Charlton Heston.  It is a reminder of God's power and promises.

2.  Jesus of Nazareth:

Franco Zeffirelli made the greatest television epic about Jesus.  I know a lot has been written about last year's Bible mini-series with its big budget and special effects.  But this movie will take you through Jesus' entire life and show all the people he touched along the way.  The movie is completely immerse and handles the Resurrection in a such a wonderful way that it feels grounded and real.

3.  Quo Vadis:

The epic shows the effect of the Resurrection on the Roman Empire.  It centers on the love story of a Roman soldier and a Christian woman set against the backdrop of Nero and his persecution.  One of the many things I love about this movie is how Marcus (Robert Taylor) comes off as puffed-up and brimming with arrogance only to watch him slowly get conquered by real love.

He Is Risen!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Film Review: Heaven is for Real

A Christian biopic has two major hurdles to overcome:

1.  Movies based on someone's life have trouble keeping to a tight narrative structure.
2.  Christian movies tend to be more earnest than artistic.

The new film Heaven is for Real struggles with the first, but avoids the second.

The story revolves around Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), an earnest Midwestern family man with a wife and two young children.  He works hard to make ends meet and volunteers at his local fire station.  The movie wisely gets us to like his down-to-earth personality before revealing he is also a Reverend for his local church.  He is a dynamic and popular preacher who is well-loved by his parishioners.  But then he is hit by a string of misfortunes, culminating with his 4-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) being hospitalized with a life-threatening malady.  This causes Todd to doubt.  But then Colton begins to talk about his trip to Heaven during his surgery, causing Todd to question everything again.

The movie turns on Colton's vision, but he is not the main character, it's Todd.  He is our vehicle into the extraordinary events of the story.

The biggest problem the movie has is structural.  The first act goes on way too long with several digressions that feel like they occurred in real life but slow down the narrative too much.  Also, a lot of the conflict and resolution has a timing that feels contrived.  People make fun of Colton, but it rings a bit hollow.  People at Todd's church feel uncomfortable with Colton's vision, but it doesn't feel very organic.  It feels like the story needs conflict and so the movie weaves it into the story.

But what pulls this movie above the normal fare is the skill with which it is made.  Director Randall Wallace uses all of his skill and talent to make the small farm town of Imperial look heartbreakingly beautiful.  Wallace has a knack for finding the epic and spiritual in his other movies like The Man in the Iron Mask and We Were Soldiers, not to mention his Oscar-winning script for Braveheart.  He really brings you into Todd's world and Colton's world and makes you feel what they are.

The best part about this movie is Greg Kinnear.  He turns in his best performance I've ever seen.  Todd feels very real.  His interaction with his children, his wife (Kelly Reilly), his best friend (Thomas Hayden Church), and his chief antagonist at the church (Margo Martindale) all feel grounded in reality with a crisp chemistry.  Kinnear brings a weary, simple charisma to his role.  You like him so easily and you feel his struggle so keenly.  When Todd begins to lose his faith it does not feel contrived, but the honest agony of a father.  But when he begins to believe his son's stories, it opens a whole new set of problems.  Kinnear shows us the complex emotional labyrinth that he has to navigate when he starts believing the unbelievable.

The movie does not water-down the child-like elements of Colton's visions.  This is one of the film's strongest elements.  It does not try to make Colton preternaturally mature or spiritual.  He is a normal 4-year-old who believes he saw something extraordinary.  But those visions are consistent with a child's mind.  He stories of angels and colors and horses and rainbows feel like something out of a cartoon.  And yet Todd is drawn deeper into Colton's stories because of their simple honesty.  He feels foolish believing them and yet he can't deny them either.  And this pain is seen in every crease of Kinnear's face.  He shines in this role in a way that is rarely seen in Christian films.

And the movie does have some wonderful reflections on faith in real life.  When Colton goes into the hospital, his mother calls friends for prayers and we see a community come together in faith that we recognize in our daily lives but is rarely see in film.  It also shows how confidence in faith can lead to arrogance.  Sometimes its the struggles that humble us and bring us to a deeper faith.  The movie reminds of a something CS Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed.

Todd's life has to be torn down so God can build it into something better.

And I also love the way the movie does not make the vision of Heaven to PC and generic.  It is based very much on salvation through Jesus.  Todd himself addresses the discomfort our society has with devotion to Jesus head on in a way that is immensely satisfying.

So if you want to see a beautifully shot movie, with a fantastic leading role, and an uplifting message, check out this movie.

4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Divine Mercy Novena Begins Today

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

"Can You Save a Man Like Me?"

(Good Friday, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of course I already know the answer.


You cannot save a man like me.

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

That man has to go away.

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

But He cannot do that.

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

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

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

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

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

A new man.

And He can save a man like that.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

New Evangelizers Post: Tenebrae - A Light in the Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is darkness in this world.

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

You can read the entire article here.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Trailer Time: Godzilla Extended

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


Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #1

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

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

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

Jimmy Stewart.

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

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

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

So what makes a great actor?

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

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

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

Believability also means that you shouldn't catch the actor "acting."  The words and actions should feel like they are coming spontaneously from the mind and heart of the actor.  Some actors simply put on a persona and go through the motions.  Samuel L. Jackson has had some amazing performances.  But often you see where he simply acts lout and large to make a big show, instead of simply inhabiting the character.  The same is true of Johnny Depp and Adam Sandler.
Finally, the mark of a great actor is if they can bring that believability to several different roles.  Acting is not only a talent, it is a skill.  And if you have a good technique, you should be able to summon your talent at will.  One of the marks of a poor actor, even one very talented, is one who cannot give a good performance because they aren't "feeling it."  A great actor will be able to perform well in several different projects.  Also, it is possible for a great director to cobble together a good performance from reams of footage.  A great actor should be able to work with several different directors and still make his performance shine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I don't think I will again.

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

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

I believed in Jimmy Stewart.

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

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Film Review: Captain America - The Winter Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Friday, April 11, 2014

Film Review: Veronica Mars

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

So was it worth the wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Film Flash: Heaven is For Real

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

Greg Kinnear shines as a man for whom both doubt and faith are a burden.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #2 - Charlton Heston


 True Lies
 Wayne's World 2
Julius Caesar
 Beneath the Planet of the Apes
 Planet of the Apes
The Agony and the Ecstasy
El Cid
The Ten Commandments

I have gone back and forth about the first and second spot on this list several times.  But either way, the final 2 actors would be deserving of anyone's number one spot.

Charlton Heston was a rare kind of man.  One of the things that I believe made his performances so good was his interior sense of integrity.  Not only did he have the courage to hold beliefs when they were unpopular, but he would publicly and stand up for those beliefs.  He marched for civil rights along Dr. Martin Luther King when it was still dangerous to his career and he spoke out for gun rights even when attacked by filmmakers like Michael Moore.  Even if you did not agree with him, you could recognize his convictions.

This conviction along with his natural charisma set Heston apart from almost every other actor.  Many people have played the part of Moses, but no one ever has done so like Heston.  This is his best known part.  I remember he recounted a story where someone said they named their child after him.  He said "Oh no, you named the poor child 'Charlton?'"  They said, "No, we named him 'Moses.'"

People remember the booming voice, the long beard, and the dramatic gestures.  But go back and watch it again from the beginning and see a master artist at work.  His Moses is not a pious painting, but a conflicted soul.  He is torn by his love of his Pharaoh and Nefertiti and his Hebrew people and his God.  When he confronts his real mother, watch his resigned acceptance of the truth.  When he tells Nefertiti that her son will die, hear the pity and regret in his voice.

Heston became famous for his epics.  His rage-filled Judah Ben-Hur is a tour-de-force performance.  You can feel his sadness as he realizes his best friend is evil and you can see the rage in his heart with his desire for revenge.  We can see that same kind of violent, noble spirit in El Cid where he plays a man trying to live up to a legend that he cannot match.

One of his best turns of this classic-Heston period is as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy.  The story is not only an introspection into the artistic soul, but it is a battle of wills between himself and Pope Julius (a fantastic Rex Harrison).  The movie explores the nature and importance of art, but the main artistry is in Heston's performance.  He lets us see the slowly awakening soul.  He moves from vanity to virtue, though not simply or perfectly.  Heston lets us see the wild passion of what real beauty can inspire against all odds.

But Heston was not a one-note player of virtuous heroes.  People mostly remember the weird sci-fi aspects of Planet of the Apes.  But his Taylor is actual much more cruel and savage than the apes themselves.  Notice how callously and cavalierly he deals with loss after the crash or how he mockingly laughs at the planted American flag.  While we root for Taylor because he is the one speaking human, it should be noted that he does not bring much heroism to the story.  Heston plays him as a man with pain in his heart, especially in that final, haunting scene.  This is a man so broken that he would destroy the world just because he could.

I think, however, his best performance was as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar.  Here, Heston plays an out and out villain.  He speaks so casually about murder and destruction.  And yet he projects a false sincerity.  I would encourage you when you have the time to watch the entirety of his soliloquy to the mob.  Heston breathes life and power into every syllable of Shakespeare (in fact, Heston is one of only 3 actors who can do Shakespeare in an American accent and not have it sound off).  I have watched that scene countless times and still marvel at it.  What impresses me so much is how layered it is.  It is mock sincerity, but it is completely believable mock sincerity.  As the omniscient audience we can see the lie behind Antony's eyes, and yet we understand completely the mob believe his story.  The seen is a master's class in acting.

It is no wonder that when they joked in Wayne's World 2 that they needed a "better actor" that they went with Heston.

And finally, Kenneth Branagh cast Heston as the lead player in Hamlet.  You can see Branagh's Hamlet marvel at Heston's performance, and I can't help but imagine that was Branagh's actual reaction.  At the time of the movie, Heston was well past his prime.  You can see the stiffness in his movement.  But even in those aching limbs he presented raw acting power.  And that was what was magically about Heston.  When he took on a role, it was with such incredible conviction that you could not help but be transported.

Charlton Heston was a star in the truest sense of the word.  He earned all of his accolades.  He burned with a fire that is unmatched by anyone.  And his talent should light the way for movie lovers for years to come.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Film Flash: Captain America - The Winter Soldier

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

Exciting.  Intelligent.  Serious.  Action-packed.  After Avengers, the best Marvel movie (and that includes Iron Man)

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How I Met Your Mother Finale: My Super-Spoilery Review

Okay, as the title says, this review is going to be filled with spoilers.  Be warned, if you don't want to know how the series ends, do not read any further.

In a nutshell, Ted meets his future wife, Tracy, right after Barney and Robin's wedding.  They fall in love and have 2 kids.  However Barney and Robin are constantly fighting because of Robin's job and her perpetual travelling, so they decide to get divorced.  Barney returns to being a lothario and Robin becomes more and more distant from the group.  After having sex with 31 women in in 31 days, Barney gets the last one (who is never named) pregnant and has a daughter.  This changes him completely and gives up his old ways.  Robin returns one more time for Ted and Tracy's wedding.  Tracy gets sick and dies.  Ted decides to go after Robin again now that 6 years have passed, and his children encourage him.  He shows up at her door as he did in the pilot, with a blue French horn.

First of all, I should say that I get it.

I get what the producers were trying to do.  From the beginning, the story has been about Robin.  That's why Ted begins the series by telling his kids about when he met Robin, not Marshall, Lilly, or Barney.  It makes sense that this would be his way of trying to get them to understand why he would be going after Robin now that he is a widower. 

And there are some nice moments in the finale.

-The Ghostbusters quoting
-The actual moment Ted and Tracy meet.
-Barney falling hopelessly for his baby daughter
-Any scene with Tracy.

Again, I understand that the overall point was to get Ted together with Robin.  But the minds behind the show wrote themselves into a very tricky emotional corner.  In order to get to that end, they have to trample a lot of what came before.

Here are a few points of contention:

1.  It trashes Barney/Robin.
This entire last season takes place at Barney and Robin's wedding.  We like Barney and we like Robin and we see that they love each other, so we root for them.  Barney's proposal the season before was quite legend-(wait for it)- dary.  The penultimate episode has Robin with cold feet coming to the understanding that Barney is changing for the better for her and that she loves him and so they exchange vows.

But that relationship is totally broomed within 30 minutes of the wedding.  It feels cheap, as if we invested a lot of our emotional capitol in an investment that imploded soon after finally reaching its potential.

2.  It minimizes Ted/Tracy
One of the best things about this season was the introduction of Tracy.  Not only is she completely and utterly compatible with Ted, but she is much more likeable than Robin.  She is selfless, quircky, and accepting.  Robin is selfish, judgmental, and hard-edged. 

In the scenes that Ted and Tracy share, we can see an easy chemistry.  We've been waiting the entire series for this romance.  We have NOT been waiting for Ted and Robin.  Yes, the two have an attraction and a spark.  But from the first episode they've told us that these two are not going to end up together, so we let it go.  We, the audience, have been yearning to see Ted finally find his happiness with his soul mate.  And that happiness is all too brief. 

We really don't see Ted dealing with Tracy's death.  We see her resting in a hospital bed and then we cut ahead 6 years later.  It feels like Ted was just waiting Tracy out until he could go after Robin.  I know that isn't what happened or what the writers intended, but because they don't flesh out that time in Ted's life, it feels like all the wait has been for very little payoff.

3.  The Ted/Robin relationship is doomed.
Ted and Robin have been together several times already.  And every time it has failed.  Miserably.

This time will be no different.

The problem has never been with Ted.  Ted would make the full and complete life commitment to Robin.  We've already seen that he will be there for the one he loves in sickness and in health. 

But Robin is selfish.  Everything is about her and her career.  When things got tough with Barney, she bailed.  If things ever got difficult with Ted, she would leave him. 

Because Robin is unchanged, the same result will occur: tragedy.

This could have been easily fixed.  We could have spent more time with Ted post-Tracy.  We could have seen Robin there to comfort him.  We could have seen Robin sacrificing for him.  Imagine she had a chance to interview the President and instead she gives that up in order to be there for Ted during one of his sad moments.  If we saw that, we would have seen a woman who has learned that love and family are more important than ambition.

But we never saw that.  Even the last shot tells us this.  Romantic though it is, Robin is still aloof and out of reach. 

There were a few other things that bothered me, like Ted and Tracy not getting married until the end of the episode, but I do not want to nit-pick. 

I think that these three issues loom large and they blunt the emotional impact of what could have been more awesome than licking the liberty bell!

New Evangelizers Post: On the Necessity of Self Love

I have a new article up at
I remember growing up in the 1980’s.  One of the big musical hits was Whitney Houston’s, “The Greatest Love of All.”  It had wonderful lyrics about believing that children are our future, overcome adversity, etc.  But it wasn’t until I was older that I realized what the eponymous “Greatest Love” was: “Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all.”

I would venture that most believers would say that self-love is the source of much of our sin.  We love ourselves above others.  We turn inward and selfish.  I reflexively cringe when I hear any touchy-feely gobbled-gook about self-affirmation and love.  I reject outright the philosophy of Norman Vincent Peale: “I’m okay.  You’re okay.”

As a teacher I can see the harm in too much focus on the self.  This can lead to vanity and self-centeredness.  I’ve observed parents who have convinced their children that they are privileged princes and princesses who must make others bend to their will and meet their needs.  One of the biggest challenges of growing out of adolescence is to think about things bigger than yourself and your feelings and your desires.  Nurturing an ego will retard a person’s growth in adulthood.

And yet we need self-love.

We are commanded to engage in self-love.

You can read the entire article here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Charity of the Month: Haiti 180

Sean Forrest is a Christian Missionary that I have had the privilege of meeting a few times.  I've seen him work with young people and they respond to his personality and his genuine sense of integrity.

Sean has been doing mission work in Haiti for a number of years now, particularly working with orphans.  His latest project is building a home for the elderly there.  Please watch the below video to see why there is such a need for this in Haiti:

As you can see, these are the people Christ spoke of who are forgotten by society.  And it is our duty and our privilege to help them.

You can donate by clicking here.

And as always, I will never ask of any of you what I am not willing to do myself.