Thursday, December 31, 2015

Absent Friends (repost)

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.


Monday, December 28, 2015

Film Flash: Joy


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

Good acting and a fascinating story cannot overcome a terrible, terrible script.

1 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sunday Best: Catholic Skywalker Awards - Television 2015

With 2015 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 on Doctor Who this year).

Shows we watch:

Big Bang Theory
Life in Pieces
The Grinder
The Middle
Satruday Night Live
Brooklyn 99
Master of None
Parks and Recreation
The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt
The Jim Gaffigan Show
Agents of SHIELD
The Flash
Doctor Who
The Walking Dead
Jessica Jones
House of Cards
Game of Thrones
Amazing Race
Dancing with the Stars

Best Drama:


(from my Sunday Best TV Dramas of All Time #23)

Daredevil is a fantastic piece of television.  And regardless of where the rest of the series goes, what they have already accomplished is amazing.

The show follows the travails of a "street-level" superhero Daredevil (Charlie Cox) who beats up bad guys by night.  His alter ego, Matt Murdoch, is a lawyer by day and fights against large corrupt forces in his city.  He is aided by his best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Hensen) who acts not only as comic relief but moral compass.  Also there is his girl Friday/Damsell Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) who enters dramatically into their lives.  Together they must confront a shadowy underworld led by Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio).

What makes this show stand out even after one season?

Let me reference The Dark Knight here.  One of the reason that film is reverenced in the super hero cannon was that it created an intricate social, moral, and mental landscape all the while grounding the the comic book genre in a tangible, rough reality.  And the true is the same of Daredevil.

In other words, Daredevil is The Dark Knight of TV shows.

-Doctor Who
-The Flash
-The Walking Dead

Best Comedy
Parks and Recreation

The show came to an end earlier this year.  Community also ended this year, but the producers of Parks decided to spend the entire series preparing for the goodbye.  And this is what sets Parks above Community this year.  Besides all of the humor, there was a wonderful sense of catharsis.  

The final season skips ahead 3 years, allowing for some funny moments imagining how society and technology will change in that time.  The biggest drawback is that the show, which has traditionally avoided most larger political issues, took its final season to get a little politically preachy.  That said, the focus was not on politics as much as character.  

The show also took a great deal of time to close the loop on all of their character arcs.  My favorite episode was the "Johnny Karate" episode.  Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) has a kid's entertainment show that is reminiscent of Stanley Spedowski's Club House from UHF.  The entire episode made as an episode of that show.  And it is as funny and crazy as I hoped.  

The final episode also gave us glimpses into the the future of all the characters.  The producers understood something that not enough storytellers do: after we spend so much time with these characters, we come to love them and we want to know that they are going to be okay.  Parks and Recreation gives us the chance to say our goodbyes with some tears but a lot of laughter.

The Big Bang Theory
The Middle
The Goldbergs

Best Actor in a Drama
Charlie Cox - Daredevil

When they originally cast Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, I thought it was a mistake.  He is not a bad actor. But in all of the previous roles I had seen him in like Stardust and There Be Dragons, he played a young, sometimes naive, innocent.  This is not the kind of beaten-down hero that Daredevil is.  

But I was wrong.  Cox knocked it out of the park both as Daredevil and his alter ego Matt Murdock.  I loved the way he carried himself throughout the series, often being robbed of access to his eyes, one of the most powerful instruments in an actor's toolbox.  I found the cadence of his voice, with its calm measure as Matt and its frantic desperation as Daredevil to be riveting.  I felt the wear and tear of Daredevil's life.  Every punch and kick he took felt painful.  Every punch and kick he gave felt exhausting.  And his dramatic moments, like his one with Foggy in his apartment, showed more range than I had ever seen on him.  This set him apart from all the others in his field this year.

Steven Amell - Arrow
Peter Capaldi - Doctor Who
Patrick Wilson- Fargo
Andrew Lincoln - The Walking Dead

Best Actress in a Drama
Rose McIver - iZombie

The crux of the show iZombie is that it is a police procedural where the Medical Examiner eats the brains of murder victims to help solve their deaths.  What makes this show different is that our zombie ME Liv, played by Rose McIver, takes on the personality and character traits of the person who died.  This is a TV actor's dream: to play the same character but be able to play them differently from week to week.  And McIver makes the most of it.  She shows incredible comedic and dramatic range whether she plays a spoiled house-wife, a cynical blogger, an old racist, or a talented song-writer.  McIver brings something new and exciting with each episode while keeping the through-line of her character.  The degree of difficulty along with the skill of execution makes her the best dramatic actress this year.

Stana Katic – Castle
Chloe Bennet - Agents of SHIELD
Jenna Coleman - Doctor Who
Krysten Ritter - Jessica Jones

Best Supporting Actor, Drama
Jonathan Banks - Better Call Saul

This was one of the toughest calls this year because the quality of the supporting actors has been outstanding.  Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin was at first jarring, but then I realized its genius.  Jesse L. Martin continues to bring paternal heart to The Flash.  Lennie James raises the bar on an already great show like The Walking Dead.  And I gone on record as saying David Tennant's Kilgrave is the best villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe mostly because of his performance.  

But the best supporting actor this year had to be Jonathan Banks for Better Call Saul.  What sets him apart from these other great performances?  In a word: control.  Watching him in Better Call Saul, I'm watching a master of the craft of acting using all of his skills to create a character with every tool at his disposal.  His performance is so restrained, but you can feel the raging torrents underneath.  And then when those torrents break, it is done with such mastery over his emotions that every look and gesture twists the heart.

If you want to see why he won, check out the video below.  BE WARNED MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BETTER CALL SAUL

David Tennant – Jessica Jones
Jesse L. Martin - The Flash
Vincent D'Onofrio - Daredevil
Lennie James - The Walking Dead

Best Supporting Actress, Drama
Debroah Ann Woll - Daredevil

Karen Page, played by Deborah Ann Woll, is a wonderfully complex character with several layers that are slowly pealed away throughout the series.  She is need of help, but she refuses to be a damsel in distress.  Woll plays her confidence while showing how out of her depth she often is.  She is able to take her character and turn her from terrified to confident to desperate to guilt-ridden in a very small space of time.  All the while she shows an amazingly deep range of emotions without becoming overly melodramatic.  She grounds Karen in a reality that makes all of her emotion more real and tangible.


Emily Brett Rickard - Arrow
Rachael Taylor - Jessica Jones
Jean Smart - Fargo
Kirsten Dunst - Fargo
Melissa McBride– The Walking Dead

Best Actor, Comedy
Johnny Galecki - The Big Bang Theory

Often Johnny Galecki gets overlooked on The Big Bang Theory for his much lauded co-star Jim Parsons.  But I think this does a disservice to the wonderful comedic skills of this actor.  He plays the low self-esteemed nerd pefectly while making him identifiable and likable.  His speech to graduates made me laugh and laugh.  But what is often overlooked is his ability to use little bits of physical comedy, whether it is little leg lift as a "sexy" graduate or him dancing around in Penny's lingerie, a scene that I caused me to howl with laughter.  Galecki was able to show his dramatic range this year with his last-minute confession to Penny before marriage, the wedding vows, and the subsequent quarrels.  But even in all of this, Galecki never lost the humor and brought the laughs whenever possible.

Andy Sandburg - Brooklyn 99
Jim Parsons - The Big Bang Theory
Nick Offerman – Parks and Recreation
Joel McHale - Community

Best Actress, Comedy
Ellie Kemper - The Unbreakable Kimmi Schmidt

The Unbreakable Kimmi Schmidt is not a good show.  It has some very funny moments, but it is mostly an exercise in frustration.  But regardless, Ellie Kemper is a star.  She elevates the show with her dynamic energy.  She is a fantastic comedienne, both in line-delivery and physical comedy.  She has a natural charisma that draws her to be the center of attention.  And playing Kimmi is not as easy as it would seem for such a broad comedy.  While most of the other characters are completely dimensional, Kemper makes sure not to play Kimmi's wonder as stupidity.  Her optimism is not naiveté.  And the fact that everyone else around her is awful, she is able to bring great humor by foiling them.

Wendy McLendon-Covey – The Goldbergs
Kaley Cuoco – The Big Bang Theory
Patricia Heaton – The Middle
Amy Poehler – Parks and Recreation

Best Supporting Actor, Comedy
Simon Helberg - The Big Bang Theory

This may have been the most dramatic turn for Simon Helberg's Howard Wolowitz.  The death of his mother was devastating and Helberg pulled at every heartstring in a way that I have never seen him do before.  But that would not have been enough for him to win this award, since it is in the comedy category.  What puts him over the top is the way in which he uses the comedy to highlight the tragedy and the tragedy to highlight the comedy.  A lot of credit should be given to the writers, but Helberg executes this difficult juxtaposition with great skill and none of his sudden tonal shifts feel false.  He was fantastically funny and heartbreaking this year.

Adam Scott– Parks and Recreation
Danny Pudi – Community
Chris Pratt – Parks and Recreation
Keith David – Community

Best Supporting Actress, Comedy
Gillian Jacobs - Community

"Britta is the worst." That is the most common thing said about Gillian Jacobs character on Community.  And in its final season, Jacobs gave her performance its full comedic force to show her as "the worst," which made her comedy the best.  She has always been a rebel looking for a cause.  The episode where we finally meet her "oppressive" parents, is both silly and realistic.  Her reaction, particularly when she steals the big wheel, is done with such a manic desperation that does not comport with the situation that it cannot help but be hysterical.  And through it all, there was actually some growth for her as a character that Jacobs brought forth as the series came to a close.  I am going to miss her being "the worst."

Aubrey Plaza – Parks and Recreation
Alison Brie – Community
Eden Sher- The Middle
Mayim Bialik - The Big Bang Theory

Stay tuned next week for the CatholicSkywalker Awards for Best Movies of 2015

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Magi Me (repost)

(This is my Christmas essay from 2 years ago.  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 23, 2015

Film Review: The Intern

(I know this review is late, but here it is)

The Intern is not a great movie and it is not a bad movie.  It is a nice movie.

The story centers around Ben, played by a delightful Robert De Niro.  He is a retired widower who tries to fill the emptiness in his life with work.  He decides to enter an internship program with a company run by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway).  This leads to a number of humorous encounters that highlight the difference between Ben's old school sensibilities and the millennial, de-masculinized world.

The real treat is the chemistry between De Niro and Hathaway.  Their relationship could easily have devolved into a father/daughter, boss/butler, May/December kind of thing.  The script wisely makes their story more interesting and emotionally complex.

In a world that tends to devalue the elderly, this film does a good job of reversing that trend.  There is a strong theme of looking past the differences in age and seeing the person as they are.  The movie also has a lot to say about marriage and its meaning.  As Jules deals with the pressures of work and raising her daughter, the strains that appear in her marriage become very real.  Again, the script wisely avoids any easy answers but it recognizes how serious marriage is in a way that I have not seen in a lot of movies lately.  And while Ben's words about his wife are very touching, as he begins to enter into a sexual relationship with another character, it adds a bit of tarnish to the story.

The biggest drawback of the film is the same problem with most Nancy Meyers films: they are too long.  She adds scenes that are unnecessary to the story, like a sequence where Ben and other break in to the home of Jules' mother.  Scenes like this are not diverting enough to justify their presence in the film.  Also, she gets bogged down in her won dialogue.  It is a tricky thing, because she can write some excellent bits of dialogue, but she drags it out too long.  Like Tarantino, she highlights smaller moments at the expense of the overall film.

While watching, I could not help think of Hathaway's other movie, The Devil Wears Prada.  This movie feels like a thematic sequel to that one.  Whereas Hathaway once played a young lady entering into the jungle of the business world, this shows her maturing and taking control of her own business and destiny.

Again, this movie will not move mountains.  But if you are looking for a pleasant diversion for a little while, you could do worse than The Intern.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Happy Festivus

Happy Festivus, everyone!

My friends and I have been celebrating Festivus for years.  I can't tell if that's awesome or sad.

Anyway, I want all of you to know, gentle readers, that I have made a donation to The Human Fund in your names.

I now leave you to airing of grievances.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars: Stayin' Alive

There are times when Jimmy Fallon at the Tonight Show knocks it out of the park.

This is one of them.

(If it doesn't play on your web browser, check here:

New Evangelizers Post: The Lord's Prayer Pt. 2 - The Holiness of God's Name

I have a new article up at  

When he spoke with God through the Burning Bush, Moses asked God what Name he should give the  people when they ask what God has sent him.   Moses might have been trying to be a bit too clever. It is clear from reading the passage that Moses  was attempting to get out his heavenly mission. He asks “why him?” He says that he isn’t someone  who can perform great miracles. He says that he cannot speak in front of crowds. And he asks what  Name he can give for God. Up until this point in Salvation History, God had not revealed His Name to  anyone.

It has to be understood that in the ancient world it was believed that names had power. To have  someone’s name means that you had special access to them. The best modern way to understand it would be the way we exchange names now. If someone came up to you and said, “Hi, my name is  Joe,” the common response on our part would be, “Hi, I’m _______.” Now imagine going up to  someone else and saying, “Hi, I’m ________.” That person then looks at you and says, “Good for  you.”

 There is clearly a difference between the two interactions and it based on the giving or withholding of  the name. Exchanging names means that you are entering into some kind of relationship. This  relationship does not have to be horribly intimate, for example it can be between a waitress and a  customer. But it is a relationship nonetheless. But when a name is given and then one is not returned,  it implies a lack of relationship. A person by this action says, “You are not worth entering into any kind  of relationship. I will not share with you even my name.”

 I am reminded of the TV show Doctor Who. The main character is someone called “The Doctor.” One  of the show’s central mysteries is what is his real name. But his name is so special and secret that none  of his friends or companions knows it, except one. The only person to whom he gives his name is his  wife. Only an extraordinary intimacy like marriage could impel him to share it.

You can read the entire article here.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sunday Best: Catholic Skywalker Awards 2015 - Best in Comics

With 2015 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"

Now, you may be wondering why a blog called Catholic Skywalker would choose a Superman statue as it's award, and not something from Star Wars.   The reasons 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.

Catholic Skywalker: Best in Comics:

Best Series
Star Wars: Darth Vader

If you had told me a year ago that the best series would be about Darth Vader, I would not have believed you.  For a long time we knew that the rights to Star Wars comics would be returning to Marvel.  I assumed that it would be a serviceable set of stories, but ultimately it would be a money grab.  But the stories were good.

And Darth Vader is the best.  The deck is stacked against writer Kieron Gillen.  There is a very limited story space that he can use.  The series takes place between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  We know where all of this is going to end up.  How could there be any surprises?

But surprises there are.  And things are also surprisingly tense.

But what has surprised me most is the amazing supporting cast.  It is almost like watching a mirror universe version of Luke.  He has an evil Artoo and Threepio in Triple-Zero and BT.  He has an amazingly fun, evil, and fatalistic sidekick in Doctor Aphra.

And the art Salvador Larroca is top notch.  The visuals are bold and cinematic.  I find myself staring at the page after reading the words.

Great work and well worth the read.

Best Mini-Series
Convergence: Nightwing/Oracle #1

The overall Convergence mini-series was a big mess.  But like a sucker I bought all the tie-in books.  Most of them were forgettable.  But the Nightwing/Oracle mini-series was fantastic.  It made me miss the pre-Flashpoint relationship between Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon.  It also reminded me why I actually enjoy Gordon as Oracle much more than as Batgirl.  Writer Gail Simone made the story tense and exciting, but she brought us back to why I read comics in the first place: the characters.  It made Convergence worth it.

Best Single Issue
Justice League # 41

(from my review of this issue on my blog)


Just as I was becoming cynical about comics, this one issue turns me completely around...  Writer Geoff Johns and artist Jason Fabok have knocked it out of the park.

This story has been building since the beginning of the DC New 52.  You can feel how this story has all been a part of an overall plan.  Unlike the current Secret Wars, Johns very simply and cannily maps out the road that came before so that we can see how all the parts have converged into this moment.


One of the hallmarks of a Geoff Johns epic is to make the stakes look impossibly high.  This is so important because if we don't feel a sense of danger for our main characters, then all the tension is removed.  This is no easy feat considering that these are all franchise-level characters and they have god-like power. 

But this first issue of The Darkseid War hits you like a punch to the face.  Johns doesn't hold back at all.  He starts by slowly ratcheting up the tension.  And when it breaks, he goes full throttle.  The villain who arrives to cause mayhem (I will not say who) not only dispatches so many members of the league easily, they appear to be cunning as well.  When this villain appears, they look at Batman and say (I'm paraphrasing): "You are the human.  Yet you are still the most dangerous to me.  I hurt you first!"

Seeing as how Batman was one of the few heroes to fight all the way through Forever Evil, I love the fact that Johns ups the power and perceptiveness of the villains.

Fabok has done some amazing work here.  I was impressed with Ivan Reis work on the book, but Fabok is dynamic and beautiful.  His pages overflow with dynamic energy and he knows how to create just the right amount of tension with expression and body language.

Unlike so many other event books, I have never been disappointed by a Geoff Johns epic.  Pick up this issue, as well as the 2 prologue issue before.  You won't regret it.

Best Graphic Novel
Batman Earth One: Vol. 2

The magic one/two combo punch of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank is always amazing.  And their work on Batman Earth One has been stellar.  It is amazing how both of them can make characters who have been around for decades seem new and fresh.  The story was not only an action/mystery, but it was also a powerful emotional drama.  I don't think any writer has have made the Riddler as menacing or as much of a challenge for Batman.  And I have to say that this story has my favorite take on Killer Croc that I have ever seen.

Best Artist
Salvador Larroca

As I wrote about above about Star Wars: Darth Vader, Salvador Larroca's art is a big selling point of the book.  His art makes it feel like I'm watching a Star Wars movie, moreso than most Star Wars comics I've read.  And the fact that his main character is hidden completely, unlike most heroes and villains in comics, he must show us Vader's thoughts and emotions with body language and with his choice of framing and angles.  This might be his biggest accomplishment with his art: he makes a complete character of Vader primarily by his use of the visuals.

Best Writer
Geoff Johns (Justice League, Batman Earth One)

photo from besignyawn

Readers of this blog may be sick of me constantly putting Geoff Johns in the best writer spot, but I refuse to penalize him simply for being so good.  His work on Justice League, as stated above, has been incredible.  But combine that with Batman Earth One, put him over the top once again.  He is still the best writer in comics today and my only complaint about him is that he has cut back on a lot of his writing duties in the last few years.

And once again this year he is the best comic book writer of the year.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Spoiler-Free Film Review: Star Wars Episode VII - The Force Awakens

There is a reason there has been such a strong embargo on spoilers: the delight in this movie is in discovery.

In an age where most trailers give away the entire plot, The Force Awakens has been unique in that you got a feel for the movie without any major story points being leaked.  Most of the people who have seen the movie entered it with the thrill of the unexpected.  And in respect to you who have not yet seen it, I will not rob you of that joy.

This makes the task of reviewing much more difficult.  I do not want to give away even the opening crawl, which had me riveted to the story from the very first sentence.  But I shall also attempt to do what the marketing of this movie has done: give you a feel for the movie without giving out the story.

The bottom line is that the movie is excellent.

For detractors of the Prequels who derided the acting and loathed the lack of chemistry between the leads: have no fear.  The cast is fantastic and their interaction is wonderful.

I think people will be very surprised by these newcomers.  John Boyega as Finn is, innocent, overwhelmed, and incredibly likeable.  Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron was more charming than I was prepared for, bringing a confidence, humor, and swagger to the part that was delightful.  I am not a fan of Adam Driver, but I must give credit to his performance as Kylo Ren.  He does many wonderful things with his voice and body language that give that character the right amount of menace.  Even the droid BB-8 is endearing and charismatic.  And finally, Daisy Ridley as Rey is a star.  She shines in the role and is absolutely the heart of the movie.

I cannot say much about the original cast without giving much away.  But I will say that Harrison Ford may have done the best acting as Han Solo that he has ever done in any Star Wars film.  You can see the age on him; he doesn't run with as much vigor and he has a crankiness that fits his years.  But he is clearly Han Solo and not a generic Harrison Ford saying Han Solo lines.  Some of my most memorable Han Solo moments from this movie were not his lines but his looks.  For told us more with his eyes than his words.  I would not be surprised if For got an Oscar nomination for this movie.

The acting is probably the greatest quality that director JJ Abrams has brought to the franchise.  George Lucas is famous for giving his actors only two directions: "Faster.  More intense."  It is clear that Abrams has taken each of the actors on an emotional journey and in that arc he pushes them to use all of their skills to bring this world to life.

I am going to have to skip over most of the plot and theme in this review.  Sometime later I will have to explore these because these are the places that will draw the most discussion from people who has seen the movie.  But I will say this: the movie appears to center on a major theme of the original series but with new twist.  And I think this theme is exactly what is needed for this current age.  Especially as a Catholic there is much to which I can relate.

But returning to Abrams, this is clearly his movie.  Just as his Star Trek movies look and feel different than all the other Star Trek exploits from before, the same is true of Star Wars.  If you did not like how he directed Star Trek, then you are probably going to have the same problem with The Force Awakens.  It has the same feel and the same pacing.

Say what you will about George Lucas and his directing style, but all of the previous Star Wars movies had operatic style of filming.  Lucas once said that the Star Wars series was essentially a saga of silent films.  That meant that the visuals were the key and that the story, the art, the emotion, and all of that would be poured into the visuals.  If you watch all of the previous six movies (including the ones directed by Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand), they all feel like they are a part of a style that is timeless because it is a melding of old-time silent movie method with cutting edge special effects technology.  Even The Phantom Menace, the worst of the series, feels like it belongs in that same unique style of films.

The biggest detriment to The Force Awakens is the break that Abrams makes from this cinematic tradition.  I do not necessarily blame him for this.  He has to execute his vision.  And I'm sure there are people who will appreciate the fresh visual take on the Saga.  But I found it a bit jarring.  For example, Lucas was a master of integrating the music with the visuals.  Part of the reason John Williams' score is legendary is not only because of the composers genius but it was also the way in which Lucas used the score to make such memorable moments.  Critics of the Prequels must admit that "Duel of the Fates," "Across the Stars," and "Battle of the Heroes" are bold and memorable epic pieces of cinematic music.

But I cannot think of single memorable piece of original music from The Force Awakens.  All of the most memorable musical cues are from the Original Trilogy score.  And the music helps the Star Wars Saga soar to magical heights.

Yet this Star Wars feels less like space opera and more like space action.  There are, however, a few magical moments that bring me back to the original Saga.

The closest thing I will get to a spoiler in this review is this: the structure of this new trilogy is much closer to Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings than to George Lucas' Star Wars.  What I mean by that is that each of the first six Star Wars films had definitive conclusions, even the ones that ended on cliffhangers.  The Lord of the Rings end pointing directly the action that is about to take place in the next film where instead of a grand finale we have an ellipses.  And that is how JJ Abrams' Star Wars behaves.  While the last scene gave me chills, it feels cut off.  Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but the difference is jarring for me.

Perhaps I just need to see the movie a few more times to get used to the changes.

Again, my critique here may be just my idiosyncratic taste.

JJ Abrams and his entire team deserve a lot of credit.  The special effects are creative and fantastic.  The action is exciting and engaging.  The humor is natural and genuine.  In fact, I think I laughed more during this Star Wars film than any other.  There is so much to admire but I cannot profess my admiration in this review without ruining the movie experience for those who haven't seen it.

So go and see this movie and we be able to discuss all of the major story and thematic elements that make this movie so good.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.