Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Absent Friends

(a repost from 2012)

On this night of New Year's Eve,
I do much very much believe
that we should try to make amends
and call to mind our absent friends.

A year has past and all the while
they stood with us in times of trial
and joy for what fortune sends
even though they be absent friends.

Yet pulled and torn from one another,
though loved as dear as sister, brother.
The bonds we make, life often rends,
and fills our lives with absent friends.

But friends, though distant, are always near
they live in minds and hearts most dear
in deeper ways than man comprehends
So raise a glass to our absent friends.


Catholic Skywalker Awards - Movies 2014

With 2014 coming to a close, it is time for us to choose what the best entertainment of the year was.  And just as the Academy Awards have their "Oscars", so too the Catholic Skywalker Awards have their "Kal-El's"

 I have gone through as many movies as possible this year. There were several that I missed and so was unable to place. So of the movies  I've seen this year, here are the winners:

(My appreciation and judgment of a film should not be taken as a recommendation. Choosing to watch any of these films is the reader's responsibility)


Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This was the most difficult best picture choice that I've had to make.  Up until the moment of writing this, I did not know if the winner was going to be Captain America or Interstellar.  I went back and forth so many times.  And while Interstellar's ambition was higher and it was in many ways an amazing movie, they didn't stick the landing and fumbled it up a bit at the end.  Whereas The Winter Soldier was a solid movie from start to finish.  Comparing it to Interstellar is not meant to short change what is one of the best comic book movies I have seen (and that's saying a lot).  This is also a movie that is about big ideas and grand themes like freedom and fear.  The story makes the wise decision of making the threat and themes universal rather than fusing it to a particular modern political ideology or party.  It is a political thriller that is apolitical enough to be approachable by all.  And that isn't to say it doesn't have a voice.  It rests squarely on openness and freedom over overarching government control while also letting the villains have their say.  I am particularly haunted by the terrible truth that people can be encouraged to voluntarily give up their freedom.   And it manages to interweave it into a tight and tense narrative that is so different from the original Captain America that I think it took a lot of people, myself included by surprise.  The action set pieces are wonderful, but what is amazing is that the movie is fraught with a tangible sense of danger.  The plot continued to thicken and I was impressed by how bold Marvel was in allowing this film to completely upend their established universe.  But even outside of that context, you had an incredibly exciting movie where a man with "old fashioned" values brings his honor and courage to our cynical age.  Captain America is an incredibly difficult character to write.  He is good and noble at his heart and this could so easily degenerate into naiveté or doofy optimism.  In The Avengers he was treated with respect, but still a bit of joke.  After this movie, he's not a joke.  And that is a testament to it's effectiveness.  I have watched this movie several times and it has not gotten old.  And I will continue to watch it with enthusiasm and joy for years to come.

Interstellar - Such a wonderfully bold epic that falters when it tries to be 2001
Edge of Tomorrow - An exciting and original sci-fi actioner that is a wonderful reflection on valor and courage
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Smart spectacle that pulls you in several different ethical directions
Guardians of the Galaxy - The most fun movie of the year hands-down that was witty and original
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - A wonderful send-off to the Middle-Earth.

Joe and Anthony Russo - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I am a person who thinks that directing an action movie is a special art and one that is not to be overlooked.  There is a special kinetic poetry to them that not all can master.  But Joe and Anthony Russo did a fantastic job with The Winter Soldier.  Their action set pieces are incredible.  Particularly I am floored by the elevator fight scene.  That must have been a nightmare to logistically navigate and yet it is the best set piece of the movie.  But beyond the action, the Russos get terrific performances out of Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Redford.  They so effectively take you to the interior life of Captain America.  You are so tightly woven into his perspective that you feel as smart and noble as he is.  Watch the build-up to the elevator fight and how the directors wordlessly bring you into the action.  And then kept just the right tempo of action followed by intelligent plot intrigue and then weaving both together.  


Christopher Nolan - Interstellar
Matt Reeves - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Doug Liman - Edge of Tomorrow
James Gunn - Guardians of the Galaxy
Peter Jackson - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Andy Serkis - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

In the past, Andy Serkis has been denied the acclaim he richly deserves on the basis that his work as a motion-capture actor was produced not just by himself by computer animators.  But the new technology at work removes this final impediment.  In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the performance you see is Serkis covered in (as he would put it) "digital makeup."  And his performance is fantastic.  It is the heart and foundation of this movie.  And Serkis has to communicate so much with very little.  His every look has to be potent and powerful.  It is a complex performance full of wonderful contradictions that make his Caesar human-like.  But Serkis also has to perform as a believable ape at the same time.  You feel the weight of an educated and civilized leader trying to wrestle with savagery of his people and his own rage.  An amazing performance.

Matthew McConnughay - Interstellar
Greg Kinnear - Heaven is For Real
Eddie Reyman - The Theory of Everything
Ben Affleck - Gone Girl
Bill Murray - St. Vincent

Rosmund Pike - Gone Girl

It is nearly impossible to explain why Rosmund Pike is so good as Amy Dunne, the eponymous Gone Girl, without giving away the movie's biggest twist, so BE WARNED OF SPOILERS.  Pike believably portrays the put-upon wife only to have this illusion shattered by reality.  And if you reflect on that performance, there is an air of artificiality to her character her.  Her coldness is chilling and charismatic.  I couldn't take my eyes off her even though she repelled me so deeply.  It almost became a game to watch and see how she would deceive her way out of her next situation and to think about if we found her lies convincing, which they very often were.  A great range and intensity.

Kiera Knightly - Begin Again
Kristen Bell - Veronica Mars
Kate Hudson - Wish I Was Here
Emily Blunt - Edge of Tomorrow

Martin Freeman - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Even though he is the titular character, Bilbo Baggins as portrayed by Martin Freeman, is a supporting character in his own story.  He is the outsider/insider who can float between the different factions.  But he is not the main character but part of an ensemble.  And even though he doesn't have the screen time of a lead actor, Freeman milks every moment of screen time.  He fills Bilbo's every moment with little bits of body language and gestures that add amazing texture to his role.  With his Bilbo, there is always something more going on beneath the surface and Freeman uses those quirks as little pressure valves to let all of that intensity leak out.  

Robert Redford - Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Joel Edgerton - Exodus: Gods and Kings
Marton Csokas - The Equalizer
Jason Clarke - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Anne Hathaway - Interstellar

As Dr. Brand, Anne Hathaway had to project fierce courage and intelligence.  Yet the script called for her to be motivated to traverse the stars by the desire to see the man she loves again.  This could have easily devolved into pure sentimentality, with rationality giving way to blind emotion.  But Hathaway never loses her potent mental strength.  She argues with a strong heart and mind and never lets her deep affections appear as something in opposition to her reason.  She is incredibly willful and decisive without appearing masculine.  A difficult acting task to pull off, but done wonderfully.

Scarlett Johanson - Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Jessica Chastain - Interstellar
Carrie Coon - Gone Girl
Emma Stone - The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Jonathan and Christopher Nolan – Interstellar

The directing did not live up to the writing, but the script for this movie was amazing.  I loved how it tried to fuse its theme and plot together by paralleling gravity with love.  And the film never lets you forget the humanity behind the story.  This is also why the script's portrayal of futuristic robots is one of the most refreshing in ages, by giving them personality without ever letting you forget that they were not people.  The story has wonderful surprises and great cathartic moments that the directing just did not capture as well as it should have.


Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero- Veronica Mars 
Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely - Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John Henry Butteroworth -Edge of Tomorrow 
Mark Bombak, Richard Joffa, Amanda Silva - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 

Guardians of the Galaxy

A fantastic and colorful makeup job that brings bright and bold textures to the different alien races without sacrificing believability.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Exodus: Gods and Kings

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The use of Blink's powers and the sentinel attacks were both spectacular.  But it was the Quicksilver sequence in the Pentagon kitchen that put this over the top.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Transformers: Age of Extinction
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Guardians of the Galaxy

Hans Zimmer – Interstellar

Once again, Zimmer delivered a score that was moving, evocative, provocative, and haunting.

Exodus: Gods and Kings
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


"The Last Goodbye" by Billy Boyd - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

A beautifully sung final farewell to the Tolkienverse.


"Step You Can't Take Back"  Keira Knightly - Begin Again
"The Hanging Tree" - Jennifer Lawrence - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I

Guardians of the Galaxy
A wonderfully original space opera costume set that not only clearly delineates the different factions but look absolutely vivid and vibrant

Edge of Tomorrow
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Exodus: Gods and Kings

Below are the list of all the films of 2014 that I have seen, ranked in order of excellence:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Edge of Tomorrow
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
X-Men: Days of Future Past
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Equalizer
The Imitation Game
Begin Again
Veronica Mars
Transformers: Age of Extinction
The Maze Runner
Heaven is for Real
Big Hero 6
Exodus: Gods and Kings
St. Vincent
Wish I Was Here
Cuban Fury
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Let's Be Cops
Godzilla (2014)
The One I Love
The LEGO Movie
The Fault in our Stars
Gone Girl
A Million Ways to Die in the West
Authors Anonymous
The Theory of Everything
Happy Christmas

Monday, December 29, 2014

Film Review: The Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part I

There is a reason that this is the best of The Hunger Games movies thus far and it is this: the rebellion begins.


Mockingjay Part I picks up right after Catching Fire.  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been rescued from the arena and is hiding in the underground District 13, run by the militaristic President Coin (Julianne Moore).  Because she is a popular symbol for the rebellion, District 13 wants to recruit her to be the face of the revolution (the titular Mockingjay) and rally the other districts in a series of propaganda videos or "propos."  Katniss, however, is resistant.  All she wants is to save the remaining allies taken in the previous games, especially Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who she may or may not be in love with, as she is caught in a triangle between him and Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

I hate dwell on the romantic aspect, even though I think it works very well.  The movie should not be dismissed because of its rabid fan base among teenage girls so that this series should be confused with the shallowness of the Twilight Saga.  This is a story about big ideas like freedom and tyranny and propoganda.

Director Francis Lawrence really should be commended for being able to tackle these big concepts in such a way that doesn't dilute the main story of Katniss.  He not only draws out some truly great performances from Lawrence, Moore, Hutcherson and others, but he captures their claustrophobic desperation as the odds are stacked against them.  Woody Harrelson as Haymitch has a sober dourness and wisdom.  And Elizabeth Banks' color-drained Effie might come off as annoying to some, but I found it fascinating how her life of privilege prevents her from fully understanding her spartan surroundings.  And Donald Sutherland is fantastic as the cold and condescending President Snow.  He reeks of insincerity and dangerous cruelty.

Philip Seymore Hoffman give one of his most charming performances as Plutarch.  He cynically pushes the idea that a war needs to be sold.  And this raises one of the more interesting aspects of the movie: propaganda.  It is one of the few movies that I've seen that regards war propaganda as not inherently evil.  The movie makes the point that the only way a war can be one is if one side has the will to win.  And it ties very clearly the propos of Katniss with the kindling rebellion in the other districts.  One of the most powerful moments is one that transitions from Katniss singing in a propo to a group of rebels marching towards near certain death to fight the Capitol.

That isn't to say that the movie praises propaganda either.  It acknowledges that there seems to be something artificial at its core, and so it always feels a bit slimy.  This is why the story goes out of its way to show how Katniss is not a smooth, polished person.  She simply speaks the truth of what she knows.  That is why she ends up going to the front to speak about what she sees.  And this is where most of the movie's action comes from.

The movie does not have as much action as the past two, but what makes this movie much richer is that the main characters move from being victims to soldiers.  In the past movies, the Capitol was this all-powerful entity that tortured children in a fight to the death.  The only way to resist was in symbolic defiance.  But this movie changes the trajectory into an actual battle for freedom.  There is a natural satisfaction in finally being able to hit back and even though the fight is uphill, it is still satisfying nonetheless.

And Katniss works so well as a reluctant symbol.  When she visits a hospital of wounded rebels, Lawrence captures the rising spirit of resolve even in the face of suffering.  He understands the importance of symbols.  This is a very Catholic idea, as our tradition is so very symbol rich.  As Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis remind us, the Catholic life is dramatic and requires constant lifting of the spirit in order to do spiritual warfare.  And so we Catholics rely heavily on symbols.  Katniss, whether she wants it or not, is a symbol.

But the story smartly does not make her only a symbolic figurehead.  She is active in her fight to save Panem and Peeta.  Lawrence does such an amazing job of showing a young woman who is always on the verge of breaking under the weight of war, but finds just enough strength to continue.  You can feel the danger in her performance and she has grown into the role even more.

The movie ends on a cliffhanger, but it leaves you hungry for the final act.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Monday Poetry: Ephemera

I recently read a paper that a friend of mine wrote on two poems by Yeats.  This was the first.  It is a warning that young love, supplied and fueled only by the passions, will wither and die.  Something more is needed.

I love the sadly beautiful imagery of the lovers by the lake and the doomed naiveté of the narrator.

'Your eyes that once were never weary of mine
Are bowed in sorrow under pendulous lids,
Because our love is waning.'
And then she:
'Although our love is waning, let us stand
By the long border of the lake once more,
Together in that hour of gentleness
When the poor tired child, Passion, falls asleep:
How far away the stars seem, and how far
Is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart!'
Pensive they paced along the faded leaves,
While slowly he whose hand held hers replied:
'Passion has often worn our wandering hearts.'
The woods were round them, and the yellow leaves
Fell like faint meteors in the gloom, and once
A rabbit old and lame limped down the path;
Autumn was over him: and now they stood
On the lone border of the lake once more:
Turning, he saw that she had thrust dead leaves
Gathered in silence, dewy as her eyes,
In bosom and hair.
'Ah, do not mourn,' he said,
'That we are tired, for other loves await us;
Hate on and love through unrepining hours.
Before us lies eternity; our souls
Are love, and a continual farewell.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sunday Best: Movies to Watch New Year's Eve 2014

I know some of you have been waiting for the Catholic Skywalker Awards for movies, but honestly, I need just a little more time to put that together.

So for this Sunday Best article, I wanted to focus on the 2 best movies to watch this New Year's Eve.


The best movie I've seen regarding New Year's Eve is clearly When Harry Met Sally.  The movie is fairly vulgar and it has an incredibly loose plot structure, but it works very well.  One of the reasons is the incredible comic chemistry between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.  But it also has an incredibly romantic heart underneath a seemingly cynical exterior.

And the New Year's Even finale (SPOILERS AHEAD) always gets me.  It sums up what New Year's Eve is supposed to be about: New Beginnings.

 I love watching Harry run, not carrying how he's dressed, what Sally will say, but running to her because, as he says, "When you figure out you want to spend the rest of your life with someone you want the rest of your life to begin as soon as possible."


But there are specific movies to be watched at particular New Year's celebrations.  On New Year's Eve 2000, we watched 2001: A Space Odyssey (We got bored though, so we muted it and played The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack over it.  It was much better).

Escape from New York should have been watched on New Year's Eve 1996, as the movie was set in 1997.  Or you could have watched Predator 2, also set in a future 1997.

For New Year's Even 2004, watching the animated Transformers Movie gets you ready for what 2005 was supposed to look like (with Transformers).

But this New Year's Eve is a biggie because we are about to enter 2015.  Which means we should check out the projected future of Back to the Future Part II.

I am going to rematch it New Year's Eve to see how close they came.  Among the things promised by this movie that we don't have:

1.  Flying Cars
2.  Hoverboards
3.  Holographic movies (particularly Jaws 19)
4.  Dust repellent paper.
5.  Self-tying laces
6.  Auto-fit, auto-dry jackets
7.  Hydrators
8.  Mr. Fusion

What do we have?

1.  Tv Phones (or Skype)
2.  Interface glasses (Googleglass)
3.  Thumb print security

I'll be watching to see how close we came to others.


Film Flash: The Imitation Game

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

Fascinating story about secrets on top of secrets and lies on top of lies.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Film Flash: Unbroken

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

Inspirational film of someone trapped at sea, in prison, and in a too-long movie.

4 out of 5 stars

Film Review: The Hobbit - The Battle of Five Armies

A big, bold spectacle sends off the final Middle-Earth movie.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies picks up the exact moment that The Desolation of Smaug ended.  The great dragon attacks the helpless citizens of Laketown as Thorin's company looks on helplessly.  But after about 12 minutes, this problem is resolved and the story pushes forward to the main issue at hand: who is to claim the treasure of the Lonely Mountain.

Thorin (Richard Armitage) begins the story by falling to "dragon sickness," which is like what lust that Gollum had for the one ring, but this time centered treasures in general.   And because of this, Thorin slowly begins to fall into madness, much to the anguish of Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the other dwarves.  This irrational greed makes him refuse to treat with Bard (Luke Evans ) of Laketown and Tranduil (Lee Pace) of the Woodland Elves.  This pushes these 3 races to battle each other.  That is until the Goblins come, lead by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennet) and one other army (that I will not mention here) so that we get the eponymous battle.

The movie's strengths lie in Jackson's incredible talent for visual amazment.  This a beautiful movie to watch, not just in terms of set design and special effect, but also in Jackson's sweeping direction.  Of course, this can also be a bit problematic.  When struggling with his "dragon sickness" Jackson uses an elobarate cinematic sequence to convey his inner conflict when a much simpler sequence would have been better.  But this movie is "go big, or go home."

Many of the performances are also great.  I adore Freeman as Bilbo.  He infuses so much personality and character with his every mannerism and twitch.  I only wish that there was more of him in the movie.  I find it so odd that even though he is the title character, there is no doubt that he is a supporting character in an ensemble rather than a lead.  Armitage also bring a lot of gravitas to the diseased Thorin.  Ian McKellan's Gandalf is as vibrant as ever.

There are some performances that are not up to par, however.  Lee Pace's Tranduil never comes off as a believeable person.  And worst of all is Alfrid (Ryan Gage).  He is the Jar Jar Binks of this movie.  Every scene he is in drains life and vitality from the movie.  I inwardly groaned whenever I saw him.  This is less the actor's fault as it is the writers.  His part could have easily been removed and the film would have so much better.  Every time the film wants me to take it seriously, they trot out Alfrid and he wakes me from the spell they are trying to cast.  I cannot emphasize enough how awful Alfrid is.

It cannot help but feel like he was put in there to pad the story with things not from the book, as was Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the romance of Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily).  But the romantic subplot was actually a nice added dimension to the story.

But this film feels like it has more real peril, both internally and externally.  The battle at Dol Guldor is one of my favorite moments in the battle.  You really feel the power of the wizards and elves.  I particularly enjoyed watching Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchette) use their full power against evil.

I especially love Bilbo's dilemma.  As Thorin becomes more consumed, he has to figure out what to do.  As his friend he does not want to hurt him, but he knows that in his current state, Thorin will destroy himself.  Freeman does an excellent job of expressing this inward struggle with sincerity and believability.

But the problem with his Bilbo (and this is not the actor's fault but the writer's), is that he is a bit too stoic by the end.  I honestly think Peter Jackson was injured by the criticism that The Return of the King's ending was too long.  I thought the criticism was wrong, since that extend goodbye gave everyone closure and catharsis.  But The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest of the Peter Jackson Middle-Earth movies, and he wraps up the ending fairly quickly.  But I think the latter is a deficit rather than a strength.  It did not feel like you had enough of a chance to say goodbye the company of Thorin.

The other issue (MILD SPOILER) is that because this film has to connect to The Lord of the Rings, it ends on a slightly down note that the book does not.  Bilbo returns as a war veteran who has become an addict.  He is addicted to the ring and rather than ending on an uplifting note, we say goodbye to young Bilbo in the throws of his addiction.  This works to connect it to the other trilogy, but it feels like shortchanging this one.

Speaking of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I have been rewatching them since seeing the final Hobbit.  And it seems to me (though I could be wrong), that there was a lot more CGI locations and sets rather than actual physical, outdoor shots.  The same thing happened with the Star Wars prequels.  The only reason why I mention it here is that the concreteness of the world in The Lord of the Rings gave it a more believable look than The Hobbit.

However, Richard Taylor and WETA did a fantastic job of realizing their world.  One of my favorite things from the movie was watching a dwarf army in formation, something I have never seen before.  It was so fantastic to see these 5 distance races of armies side-by-side and distinct in every way.

So if you've enjoyed the previous Hobbit films, then you will certainly enjoy this one.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Film Review: The Theory of Everything

I think the filmmakers of The Theory of Everything looked at Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind and said to themselves: "How can we make a movie that can be marketed just like this one but be the exact opposite?"

It is so difficult to review the problems with this movie without getting into spoiler territory, so I won't bother to hide them.  So be warned:


The movie is based on the real life journey of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his life with wife Jane (Felicity Jones).  The movie is not really about his scientific achievements (though that is part of it) and it isn't really about his disease (though that is a major part of it).  It is their love story.   The movie even begins with their first meeting.  That is how the story is built, sold, and framed.

And that is the reason why the movie fails.

When Stephen contracts ALS, Jane decides to marry him so that they can have some time together before he dies, an estimated 2 years at best.  But instead Stephen lives and the two have 3 children all the while Jane does her best to take care of her children and ailing husband.

Again, this should seem very close to A Beautiful Mind plot-wise.  And like the Jennifer Connelly character in that film, Jane gets frustrated and overwhelmed by these circumstances.  She joins a choir and befriends the choir director Jonathan (Charlie Cox) who agrees to help out with Stephen around the house.  However the two give in to temptation and sleep together just as Stephen goes into the hospital and has to have breathing tube put, which removes his ability to speak.  Jane breaks it off with Jonathan and returns to Stephen.

They then hire a specialist named Elaine (Maxine Peake) who develops an attraction with Stephen.  Eventually, Stephen decides to run off with Elaine and Jane goes back to Jonathan.

So the theme of the movie is: when things are difficult, love dies.

Look, I'm not someone who needs a happy ending to acknowledge a movie is good (though I freely admit that is my preference).  But the movie is built on their love.  You are invested in their struggles because of their love.  And in the end, they throw it all away.

The filmmakers could have easily avoided this problem by focusing on other aspects of Stephen's life.  Focus on his work, his struggles, his unique way of looking at the world… whatever.  Just make the love story an ornament to your film, not it's foundation.

And it isn't even that the love itself ends, but its that we are to be happy that they are liberated.  When Jane goes back to Jonathan, director James Marsh infuses the scene with passion, romance, beauty.  In other words, he wants us to be moved and uplifted that they can be together.  But this is a complete betrayal of our loyalties from the previous 2 hours.  None of the characters grow.  Instead they degenerate and we are supposed to rejoice in their freedom.

It is a complete inversion of everything that A Beautiful Mind stood for and what made that movie great and this movie terrible.  In the Theory of Everything, Stephen tries desperately to find an equation or theory that binds all the universal principles together.  But he misses out on what John Nash says in A Beautiful Mind, "It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reasons can be found."

The one redeeming aspect are the performances.  Redmayne is fantastic as Hawking as should probably get an Oscar nomination from it.  I just wish that performance could be transplanted to a better movie.

As a Catholic, I feel like I should write something about the constant religious dialogue between atheist Stephen and Christian Jane.  But to be honest, it was juvenile at best.  There was no real depth or resolution to their bickering, so there isn't much to say.

Avoid this movie.  It's themes are noxious and it's soul is poison.

The Theory of Everything is a story of nothing.

1 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 26, 2014

Film Review: St. Vincent

My biggest problem with the movie is a semantic and theological one.  It has to do with the word "Saint."

St. Vincent centers on Vincent (Bill Murray) who appears to be an amalgam from Jack Nicholson's character from As Good As It Gets and the old man from Up.  He drinks too much, gambles too much, frequents a pregnant prostitute/stripper (Naomi Watts) and has the worst disposition of anyone you could meet.  Then recently divorced Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) moves in with her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher).  Through movie-type circumstances, Maggie gets Vincent to be a babysitter for Oliver.  And since Vincent needs the money, he agrees.

What follows are some funny and mildly inappropriate sequences.  But the movie slowly peals back the layers on Vincent.  And it it is in these moments that the movie works best.  The movie is about looking past the surface and finding the true core of a person, even one that seems irredeemably irredeemable.  Oliver, lacking a male father-figure, latches onto Vincent.  And slowly Vincent finds himself caught up in the frustrating joy of having a kid around.

This is one of Murray's best performances in years.  One of his best attributes as an actor is his subtlety (which might sound strange if you primarily know him from Caddyshack).  But he restrains his emotions incredibly and director Theodore Melfi is completely in sync with this.  They would rather hint that show you things outright.  There is a moment part way through the movie where Murray was able to devastate me with a short, subtle look.  McCarthy and Liberher are also up for the challenge.  They bring both comedy and pathos to their parts.  Watts plays her Russian accent a bit thick, but she is serviceable in the role.

Of course this subtlety is also part of the movie's weakness.  The film makers go to great lengths to avoid sentiment, primarily making Vincent so rough.  But, in my humble opinion, there comes a time to break down the walls and let the emotion flow.  As was said in the movie Inception, "We all long for catharsis."  Depending on your taste, you may find this restraint refreshing or frustrating.  I felt the latter.

Oliver goes to a Catholic school and I was impressed that the movie did not fall into cheap stereotypes about priests and religion.  Chris O'Dowd as Br. Geraghty was a nice, kind, patient, and funny man of the cloth.  When teaching in a multi-fatih classroom he was very open, but was clear to say "Catholics are the best… because we have the most rules!"

And it is through this Catholic school that the idea of saints are raised.

The movie is called St. Vincent because the theme is that saints are real people, not just people in a book.  And saints are human, with human flaws.  And ultimately if you look at all the good the Vincent does, even sometimes against his own will, he is actually a saint.

Overall, I think there is merit in the theme.  Pope Francis is constantly calling us to look beyond the obvious and see the good in those about whom we do not always see it.  Vincent does a lot of good that does not go noticed or appreciated.  And recognizing his goodness is a worthy idea.

But he is NOT a saint.  It irritates me as a Catholic that sainthood should be confused like this.  To be sure the word has been used differently in history.  But the common understanding today is that a saint is someone of heroic grace and virtue who dedicated their lives to God and are role models.

The problem with Vincent as a saint is that even though he does good, he also does evil.  As said above, he commits sin constantly.  And we are not talking venial imperfections either but biggies like adultery.

To be sure Vincent grows as a person, especially morally.  And the good things he does should be admired.  But sainthood is not about the good outweighing the bad.  Sainthood is about a complete surrender to the grace of God.

But other than this confusion, the movie is not bad.  There is a lot of suggestiveness and swearing, but this done for effect, to challenge us to look past the repulsive and see the child of God underneath.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Magi Me

(This is my Christmas essay from last year.  Some people said they liked it, so I am reposting it.)

Christmas is a time for giving gifts.

We are sometimes frantic with the pressure to find just the right gift to give to those we love.  We spend hours walking the malls or surfing the inter-webs until we find something that speaks to us.  It must be a gift that not only shows value to the receiver, but it must also express the relationship to the giver.  Gifts are a way for us to acknowledge how much we truly "get" the other person.

I remember one year my father's fiancee got me a set of Hot Wheels cars.  I don't know why.  I never have owned a Hot Wheels or Matchbox car in my life.  Maybe she really was trying and my adolescent brain was too prejudiced against her to realize this.  But my only thought was, "She has no idea who I am."

When I get gifts for my wife, I try very hard to think of things that she would enjoy or find beautiful (all of which are attainable through a Catholic school teacher's salary).  And every year she outdoes me with her choices.  She knows me.  She gets me.

But then I started thinking about the source of all our Christmas joy: Jesus.  He is the Gift from Heaven and we give gifts in turn to replicate that generosity.  So we shop for or make gifts to give each other.

But what about Jesus?

He is the One Who gives.  But do we give back to Him?

That's what the Magi did.  They travelled from the East to give Him gifts.  Of course these gifts were only tokens; they were symbols of their admiration.

But what about a gift that was not symbolic?  What about a gift to the Lord that showed that we truly "get" Him.

I started thinking about it and I realized what a seemingly insurmountable problem this was.  This is literally case of "What do you get for the Man Who has everything?"

I thought first about the obvious: money.  I could always drop a few more coins into the collection plate.  But then I thought that God doesn't need my money.  To be sure His children are in constant need of charity, but Jesus doesn't need money.  He was never attached to it.  Throughout the Gospels he warned against being too enthralled with money.  He could have chosen to be born into palatial opulence.  Instead He traded a gilded cradle for a straw-filled manger.

I thought about doing some work of art for Him.  After all, isn't that what the Little Drummer Boy did? (pa-rum-pum-pum-pum?)  What wonderful expressions of Divine praise we have from paintings of Michelangelo, the hymns of Thomas Aquinas, the meditations of St. Ignatius of Loyala, etc.?  I know that I cannot produce anything of that grandeur, but I could do something.  Yet doesn't all of my talent come from God anyway.  Isn't He, like the parable says, the Giver of the talents.  Any artistic ability I have is not mine, but only on loan to be from God.

I thought about simply surrendering my life, body and soul to Him.  But what kind of gift would that be?  He made me out of nothing.  Everything I have, physical or spiritual,  I have from Christ.  To give Him my soul as a gift would be like giving telling someone they can keep the sandwich they just made for themselves.  It already belongs to Him, which is why our rebellion is a kind of theft.

I thought about giving Him the sum of all of my good actions.  But even this would be a fraudulent gift.  I am powerless to be good without His grace.  Every act of kindness and charity is not mine to give Him.  He is Charity Itself.  If I have any Charity in me, it is simply the work of His Nature acting upon this mortal man.  Any good I have done could have been done by another.  But Christ kindly let me work with Him.  Even the good that I do is His gift to me.

So is there anything I can give Him this Christmas?  Is there anything that I can lay down at His feet that is not His already?

And then it struck me.  The answer is yes.

There is something that Christ does not have.  There is something that only I can make.  And I make it apart from any of His influence.

My sin.

The Lord gave me a will that is free and the power of action.  But all of this He gave me so that I might work with Him and choose the good.  But all too often I have not done so.  I turn away from that Eternal Fountain of Joy and drink the poisonous bitter waters of sin.  That is why I need a Savior.

That is why Christ was born on Christmas day.

There is only one thing that I can give to Jesus that He does not have.  I can give Him my sin.

And here is the amazing part: that is the gift He wants from us.  Those Bethlehem shepherds knelt before the Lamb of God Who takes upon Himself the sins of the world.  He came to this world because we have sin.  And He will not take it away from us by force.  He respects our free will too much for that.  Instead, we must give it to Him.

Sin must be our gift to the Lord.

I must let go of my sin and lay it down at His feet.  And then, as St. Paul says, He Who knew no sin can then become sin on the cross.  All sin must be punished if God is a just and fair God.  Jesus does not want us to bear that punishment.  He wants that burden to fall on His mighty shoulders.  It is odd to think of that tender child in that stable as the bearer of all humanities horrors.  But Christ is as innocent on that night as He was on the day they nailed Him to the cross.

Jesus wants to save us.  To do that we have to let go of the one thing that did not come from Him.  We must let Him relieve us of the burden of our sin.  That is what He wants.  Even when He receives He gives.

If I can do that, then maybe I can show the Lord that I really "get" Him.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

New Evangelizers Post: Plans of Man, Plans of God

I have a new article up at

Christmas is upon us.  And there is no better time to remember how wonderfully unexpected it all was.
To be sure, the Israelites were desperately waiting and expecting the coming of the Messiah.  But God has a funny way of playing with our expectations and giving us something we never thought we wanted.  He gives us something better than what we want.

This is important for all of us to remember.  God tells us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts.  My ways are not your ways.” (Is 55:8)  And thank goodness for that!

One of the major problems of man and his plans is that we tend to think of ourselves as wiser than we are.  We see this especially in children.  They think that eating their entire stock of Halloween candy in one sitting or putting Dora the Explorer trading cards into the Blu-Ray player are excellent ideas.  We wag our fingers and try to tell them how foolish they are.

I wonder if that’s how God feels about us.

I mean, we feel older and wiser as we progress through the years.  And certainly we hope that we have more wisdom than we did when we were young.  But our problem occurs when we think that we are wiser than God.

Of course most of us would not come right out and say this.  But how often do we give God advice? 
“God, why don’t you do…” and we fill in the blank with whatever our taste demands.  I am not here referring to petitionary prayer, which is a necessary part of the faith.  But rather I am talking about that sincere belief we have that if everything just happened the way we wanted it to, life would be great.

And when this thing doesn’t happen, often we are disappointed and ask God why?  Why didn’t He take my advice?  Why didn’t He listen to me?

But all of this comes down to a very simple question: Does God know what He is doing?

You can read the entire article here.

Film Flash: The Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part I

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

Best Hunger Games movie yet.  Refreshingly different, but incomplete.  Can't wait for part 2!

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Film Review: Exodus - Gods and Kings

This movie is not biblically accurate, let's get that out of the way.

And for many people that might be a deal breaker.  To be sure it made watching it a bit of an annoyance.  But beyond that, Exodus: Gods and Kings is actually a fine sword and sandals epic.

Director Ridley Scott wisely begins the movie with some action, just like Gladiator.  In fact, the first act of the movie felt very much like Gladiator: Egypt.  In this movie, Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are cousins who are close as brothers.  A prophetess says that in the upcoming battle a hero will save a leader and become the leader.  Moses chortles because he is a skeptic about all things religious.  Ramses takes it seriously.  The battle that ensues is both exciting and entertaining.  Scott was firing on all cylinders when directing this part of the story.

But for anyone who mildly Biblically literate, Moses comes to realize he is a Hebrew and is sent away to Midian where he finds God at the Burning Bush and is sent to let his people go.  It is in this section that things begin to fall apart.

Scott is an atheist who decided to go ambiguous with Moses' calling from God.  On the mountain he hits his head and has a vision of God, represented by a small child.  Throughout the movie, only Moses can see this Child-God and all of the miracles appear to have natural, if not unlikely, antecedents.  Scott wants both believers and unbelievers to be able to watch Moses' story and come away with their beliefs unchallenged.

But in trying to please everybody, he pleases no one.  In the end you are left with either a chain of coincidences that strain credulity of the atheist or a petulant, vengeful God to insult the believer.

And it is the latter point that is probably the biggest stumbling block.  I actually went to see this movie as soon as it opened so that I could decide if it was good enough to give my students extra credit if they went to see it (as I had with last years's Son of God).  And I was willing to do so until their portrayal of God.

I understand placing the voice of God in the performance of child.  That sense of preternatural power and wisdom in one so young while projecting innocence is a powerful image.  But it failed.  The reason is that this child also had to portray God's wrath.  And rather than coming off as righteous, wise justice, God comes off as a bratty child, like Trelane in the Squire of Gothos episode of Star Trek.  This one element spoiled a good portion of this film.  It was the same for my wife in the slightly brattish portrayal of Mary in The Nativity Story.

It is a real shame that this one thing was in there.  I could have accepted the fence-riding of the rest of the film if God was not depicted so horribly.

Beyond that, the rest of the movie is fairly good.  The performances are excellent.  Bale takes Moses to an interesting place where he goes from skeptic to man compelled by faith.  I particularly like Edgerton's Ramses.  He was venal and whiney but he managed not to go the more common route today of making him effeminate.  Sigourney Weaver is wasted in her small role as Ramses mother.  Ben Kingsly as Nun doesn't get nearly enough screen time.  And John Turturro as pharaoh did a fine job, but unfortunately his outlandish performances in movies like Transformers have left their mark on him.  I really had trouble buying him in the role.

Visually, one of the things I loved about the movie was that it made Ancient Egypt seem beautiful and luxurious.  Most movies that are filmed in ancient times focus on the crudeness of the age.  But you really felt the splendor and tranquility of the Egyptian pharaohs.  This was nicely juxtaposed to the squalor of the Hebrews.

The special effects also are top-of-the-line and there is a visible spectacle.  As I wrote, if you get beyond the above annoyances, the film is fairly enjoyable.  Scott has lost none of his potency as a film director.

If only he used those skills to tell a better version of this great story.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday Best: Catholic Skywalker Awards - Television 2014

With 2014 coming to a close, it is time for us to choose what the best entertainment of the year was.  And just as the Academy Awards have their "Oscars", so too the Catholic Skywalker Awards have their "Kal-El's"

To reiterate:  the reasons for choosing a Superman statue as it's award, and not something from Star Wars are 3-fold:

1.  The Catholic Skywalker Awards will cover movies, television, and comic books.  Superman is an icon for all three.
2.  The pose he has here, revealing his inner hero, is symbolic of the revelation of truth and beauty that we should find in all good art.
3.  It's a statue I actually own, so I can use this photo on my blog.

(My appreciation and judgment of a TV show should not be taken as a recommendation. Choosing to watch any of these films is the reader's responsibility)

And now we here at Catholic Skywalker would like to celebrate the best in Television this year.

There are a lot of wonderful programs out there that, unfortunately, time has not permitted me to see (I only caught up the Breaking Bad this year).

Shows we watch:

How I Met Your Mother
New Girl
The Middle
Parks and Recreation
The Big Bang Theory
The Soup
Raising Hope
Brooklyn 99
The Goldbergs
A to Z
The Walking Dead
Game of Thrones
Agents of SHIELD
The Flash
House of Cards
Amazing Race
Dancing with the Stars

Best Drama:

When Smallville was cancelled, I turned to the only other DC Comics show available: Arrow.  And that first season certainly had its share of rough patches.  The show had some growing to do.  The tone had some inconsistencies and the acting wasn't firing on all cylinders.  But Season 2 changed all of that.  Everything was kicked up a notch in terms of quality and scope.  The exterior threats of the season's Big Bad was mired by the internal trauma that was caused.  I found myself looking forward to this show more than any other and hanging on every episode.  The tying of the flashbacks more solidly to the modern storyline helped give emotional texture to the action.  And everything from the limo crash forward was heartbreakingly good.  And then there was the one line (which I will not spoil here) that made my mouth drop in the finale.  And Season 3 has continued that quality of story, acting, action, and theme.  The relationships have become more strained and complex and I can't wait to see what happens next.

-House of Cards
-The Flash
-The Walking Dead
-Agents of SHIELD

Best Comedy
The Big Bang Theory

As I wrote in when I declared this the #5 Sitcom of All Time: The comedy is broad.  There is no question about that.  But that is not a sin.  Sometimes a pleasant and enjoyable laughing diversion is exactly what the doctor ordered.

But what separates this show even more from Lorre's other shows is character development.  You don't really see a lot of change in these flat characters in the first few years.  But look at them now.  Sheldon stiller retains much of his quirks, but he has grown.  I especially look at the character of Howard.  I hated him for several years.  He was a lecherous jerk who reveled in his perversions (even frequenting prostitutes).  But he has grown up. 

 Now that we are in the 8th season, the show doesn't feel like it is slowing down. They are only now really exploring the deeper romance of Sheldon and Amy, the commitment issues of Leonard and Penny, and the strange rivalry between Howard and Stewart over Mrs. Wolowitz.   This is a sitcom that can still be mined for comedy gold after repeated viewings. And for that reason, it is the Comedy of the Year.

Parks and Recreation
A to Z
The Goldbergs

Best Actor in a Drama
Kevin Spacey - House of Cards

Season 2 of House of Cards is more stunning than the first.  In Season 1, Kevin Spacey's Francis Underwood was a deliciously conniving politician.  Sure, his deeds were underhanded, but the way he looked you in the eye and spoke directly to the camera made you feel like you were at the cool kids table of politics.  He gave you the inside dirt and you felt above everyone else.  But Season 2 made his transition from shady to irredeemably evil.  And it is a testament to Spacey's pure charisma that he can hold your attention on Underwood.  We should hate him and run from him.  But instead Spacey makes you hate him but want keep following him.  And the great thing about Spacey's performance as Underwood is that even when talks to you like he's opening up and being honest, that is when he is putting on his biggest show.

Steven Amell - Arrow
Clark Gregg - Agents of SHIELD
Johnny Lee Miller - Elementary
Andrew Lincoln - The Walking Dead
Benedict Cumberbatch - Sherlock

Best Actress in a Drama
Robin Wright - House of Cards

I started watching another political drama called Boss and the mayor's wife was calm, calculating, and sharp.  And while that performance was good, all I kept thinking was: she reminds me of Robin Wright from House of Cards.  The toughest part about playing this character of Claire Underwood is that her exterior is a completely stony, manipulated facade.  But unlike Francis, her conscience and her heart are not completely dead.  At the very least she feels the void and emptiness left by her dark choices.  And Wright uses that juxtaposition of coldness and heartache to maximum effect.  She believably goes from crying over the pain she's caused another to pushing Francis to inflict even larger injury against them.  Like Spacey's performance, she repels and attracts at the same time by the power of her acting skill.

Stana Katic – Castle
Chloe Bennet - Agents of SHIELD
Lucy Liu - Elementary

Best Supporting Actor, Drama
Tom Cavannaugh - The Flash

I have only been tangentially aware of much of Cavannaugh's work.  I saw a little of his comedy Ed and I caught his guest spots on shows like Scrubs.  But that did not prepare me for his work on the freshmen drama The Flash.  His Dr. Harrison Wells seems cold and aloof.  But Cavannaugh gives him so much power with the simplest looks and gestures.  Everything he says, every squint of his eye is pregnant with significance.  You can't help but feel the secrets that hide behind his coy smile and the raw power and devastation he could cause with them.  He takes charge of the screen and steals nearly every scene he is in.

Peter Dinklage – Game of Thrones
Jesse L. Martin - The Flash
Martin Freeman - Sherlock
Manu Bennet - Arrow
Kit Harrington - Game of Thrones

Best Supporting Actress, Drama
Melissa McBride - The Walking Dead

There is so much that I could say about Melissa McBride's wonderful performance as Carol on The Walking Dead.  One of the things that makes her performance so good is the amazing restraint that she shows.  Her Carol is a woman who has lost so much and has hardened.  I love her monologue where she says that pieces of her are burned away and she only feels like ashes.  You can see that in her performance.  But then those dams break, it is powerful.  Watching her say "Look at the flowers," as she forces herself to act or her resignation as she passes a gun across a table to Tyreese are two of my favorite moments of last season.  All of it works because of her portrayal.

Ming-Na Wen - Agents of Shield
Emily Brett Rickard - Arrow
Amanda Abington - Sherlock
Lena Heady – The Game of Thrones
Danai Gurira – The Walking Dead

Best Actor, Comedy
Josh Radnor - How I Met Your Mother

There were a lot of problems with the final episodes of How I Met Your Mother, which I chronicled already on this blog.  But that shouldn't take away from Radnor's swan song.  He was able to wring every drop of humor from his pathetic attempts at romance while prepping for Robin and Barney's wedding.  And then Radnor was able to do some incredible acting jujitsu and take that same energy to make you cry.  At the winter dinner he has with his wife at the Farhampton Inn, you watch him go from silly hilarity to soul-crushing sadness without taking a false step.  He ended his run on a truly high note.

Andy Sandburg - Brooklyn 99
Jim Parsons - The Big Bang Theory
Garret Dilahunt – Raising Hope
Joel McHale - Community

Best Actress, Comedy
Amy Poehler – Parks and Recreation

A common complaint about the Emmys is that the same people keep winning.  It is a complaint that I often have as well.  But in this case, I cannot withhold an award because of someone's repeated excellence.  Once again Amy Poehler takes the best actress spot. There are a lot of good women comedians out there, but Poehler is the funniest one working in television today. Her Leslie Knope is full of an insane amount of energy at which you work hard just to keep up. And it is very difficult to play someone fully sincere while at the same time not making them stupid. While Poehler's Knope is smart, she wears her heart on her sleeve. She gives herself over to any emotion she feels, like Homer Simpson if he were oriented towards public-spiritedness. What's great is watching Leslie try to overcome things that she can't. After she has a mini-breakdown from lack of sleep because of her heated campaign for city council, I dare you not to laugh.

Wendy McLendon-Covey – The Goldbergs
Kaley Cuoco – The Big Bang Theory
Patricia Heaton – The Middle

Best Supporting Actor, Comedy
Henry Zebrowski - A to Z

This was a show that was cancelled way too soon.  And the best part about it was Henry Zebrowski's Stu.  The character is not terribly original: he is the guy best friend who is pure id and brotherly loyalty.  But what set Zebrowski apart was his absolute commitment to Stu's strangeness.  There was an iintensityto how weird he was that pushed the material from being funny to being hysterical.  

Neil Patrick Harris– How I Met Your Mother
Danny Pudi – Community
Nick Offerman – Parks and Recreation

Best Supporting Actress, Comedy
Christin Milioti - How I Met Your Mother

One of the toughest things about Christin Milioti coming in and playing the part of the eponymous mother is that for eight years there had been build up to this perfect woman.  That would be daunting for any actress.  But Milioti more than delievered.  She brought warmth, intelligence, and pathos to what could have simply been an idealized facade.  And what was amazing was her quick chemistry with all of the costars.  Seeing her interact with the veterans of the show, you would think that she had been working with them for years.  That difficult task made to look easy is why she is this year's best supporting actress.

Aubrey Plaza – Parks and Recreation
Yvette Nicole Brown – Community
Alison Brie – Community
Martha Plimpton - Raising Hope
Mayim Bialik - The Big Bang Theory

Stay tuned next week for the CatholicSkywalker Awards for Best Movies of 2014