Sunday, May 31, 2015

3 Year Anniversary: The Catholic Skywalker Dialogues

(5/31/15: Feast of the Visitation)

It's had to believe that it has been 3 years since a started this little blog.  And now, over a thousand posts later, I'm still here.  

And more importantly, you, faithful reader, are still here.

For this I thank you.

When I was younger I kept a journal.  There was a great advantage in writing my thoughts down.  It gave them structure.  It forced to me to take the chaos of mind and give it some kind of logical form.  However, I eventually stopped because I was writing for an audience of one.

That is one of the reasons that I find blogging so rewarding.  There is an interaction, a relationship with you.  I think that I'm getting better at this.  I don't have so much a personal sense of improving as a writer, but I have had more people comment about things I've written in the past year than I have ever before.  And that kind of feedback makes me want to writer more and better.

When I first started this blog, I wrote:

A little about me: I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me.  I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find.  As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows.  They take up a huge part of my life.  I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class.  I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask).  The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason.  It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill.  In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth.  Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me. 

Over the past 3 years I still been unable to reconcile this main dilemma in my mind or heart: I love pop culture, but so much of it is opposed to God.  Do I abandon pop culture all together?  Do I engage it from afar?  Can I enjoy something that has questionable morals and values.

I would venture to say that I have touched upon these ideas in the past 3 years, but I daresay none of them have been resolved.  The format of essay-writing does not lend itself as much to open-ended explorations of a topic.  To not have a strong thesis makes your essay feel like a rambling litany of nonsense.  But since I myself am unresolved on a lot of these points, I have struggled with how to address them.

Then I remembered my love of Plato.  Reading his Socratic dialogues made philosophy come alive for me.  He made the search for wisdom not just enlightening, but dramatic.  And my putting the points that needed to be made in the mouths of different characters, Plato could explore all different sides of an issue (though Socrates was almost always the one with the "right" view).  

And here I have found my method for exploring this question.  If I can write them out in a way that boldly presents the different points of view and I can have them battle each other in the arena of ideas, maybe some truth and light will emerge.

And so I would like to introduce a new feature that will be coming this summer:

The Catholic Skywalker Dialogues.

I will be writing these on various topics regarding Catholicism  art, and popular culture.  Here is where  will put in plain language the issues at hand.  I cannot guarantee that we will find the best answers.  But I will hopefully make things clear, entertaining, and hopefully enlightening.

The first part will premiere within a week.  I look forward to your feedback as always.

And I thank you again for all of your kind words over the years.  I truly treasure them.

So I praise God for these past 3 years together with you and I pray that He blesses whatever is to come next.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wednesday Comics: Convergence and Secret Wars Review

A group of heroes and villains from different times and universes are thrust together in a strange world and are forced to do battle.

Is this DC event Convergence or the Marvel game-changer Secret Wars?

Both, actually.

As is often the case in major comics events, there is a strange overlap of ideas.

The problem is that they are both pretty bad.

Let me start with the least bad: Convergence.

The central story is that Brainiac has not only captured cities from different planets but also from different times.  So on this one planet we have heroes and villains from different eras of the DCU: pre-Flashpoint Gotham, Kingdom Come Gotham, pre-Crisis Metropolis… actually I probably couldn't tell if those were even the cities.  Anyway, Brainiac has mysteriously disappeared and a being he created, Telos, has decided that he will pit each city against each other in a strange Battle Royale.

It is a fun concept with a great sense of nostalgia for bygone eras that we miss.  But the problem is that the story is way too bloated in 2 important ways.

The main Convergence story is 8 issues long.  This could easily have been 3 or 4.  It was artificially inflated to stretch it out.  When I read a Geoff Johns epic, I can see the economy of story-telling and how each issue is important and changes the story with each chapter.  This felt wasteful.

The second way involved the countless tie-ins.  There were a plethora of 2-issue mini series focusing on the different battles.  Some were actually entertaining.  Most were boring.  And I am mad at myself for buying all of them.

Here is a rundown of what was good and bad:

The Atom #1-2[4]An interesting story bring back Ryan Choi
Batgirl #1-2[4]A fun return of Stephanie Brown as Batgirl
Batman & Robin #1-2[4]A ho-hum story involving Daminan
Harley Quinn #1-2[4]A sad and funny take on Harley
Justice League #1-2[4]Boring
Nightwing/Oracle #1-2[4]The best tie-in.  It makes me nostalgic for the old Birds of Prey
The Question #1-2[4]Okay, but dull
Speed Force #1-2[4]I've missed Wally West Flash.  This story was fun
Superman #1-2[4]Can't seem to recall what it was about
Titans #1-2[4]A decent story about Arsenal

Aquaman #1-2[5]I like the Peter David Aquaman and I like the idea of him fighting Deathblow, but this wasn't that great
Batman: Shadow of the Bat #1-2[5]Couldn't care less about Azrael Batman
Catwoman #1-2[5]A strange and touching tie-in to Kingdom Come
Green Arrow #1-2[5]This could have been really good, but it wasn't.
Green Lantern/Parallax #1-2[5]Nothing surprising or interesting here.
Justice League International #1-2[5]I love the Dibneys, but this was, again boring
Suicide Squad #1-2[5]Flashing and pointless.
Superboy #1-2[5]I like Kon-El a lot better when he was with the Teen Titans
Supergirl: Matrix #1-2[5]This tried to be funny but really wasn't.
Superman: The Man of Steel #1-2[5]This reminded me why this was my least favorite Superman book

The Adventures of Superman #1-2[6]Boring
Batman and the Outsiders #1-2[6]So boring I don't remember anything about it except Geo Force flying (can he do that?
The Flash #1-2[6]Decent fun.
Green Lantern Corps #1-2[6]Stale
Hawkman #1-2[6]Old and tired
Justice League America #1-2[6]Forgettable.
New Teen Titans #1-2[6]I wish I enjoyed this more, but it felt strange and forced.
Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #1-2[6]Only interesting because of the romance between Superboy and Lightning Lass
Swamp Thing #1-2[6]Actually, a very enjoyable, creative, and exciting story.
Wonder Woman #1-2[6]The opposite of Swamp Thing

Action Comics #1-2[7]Bad
Blue Beetle #1-2[7]Bad
Booster Gold #1-2[7]Bad
Crime Syndicate #1-2[7]It has its moments
Detective Comics #1-2[7]Bad
Infinity Inc. #1-2[7]Nostalgic, but empty
Justice Society of America #1-2[7]Nice twist to the story.
Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters #1-2[7]Good take on making the Freedom Fighters interesting.
Shazam #1-2[7]Decent
World’s Finest Comics #1-2[7]Boring

But in the end, the story felt very insubstantial.  I didn't really care about what was going to happen, which is death for a comic.

But Secret Wars is even worse.

This is Marvel's Crisis on Infinite Earths.  (which is ironic considering that the Crisis was a response to the original Marvel mini series Secret Wars from the 1980's)

For those who recall, Crisis was the game changer for DC that pulled all of the multiverse into one shared universe.  You can argue the effectiveness of doing this, but the story itself was excellent: epic and heart-wrenching with big, bold action.

Secret Wars is boring.

Part of the problem is that it is written by Jonathan Hickman.  Now, if you read my review of his Fantastic Four run, you know that I think he is incredibly talented.  But he is a long-form story teller in the worst and best sense.  His style only works if you've ready everything he's written for the past 10 years.  You cannot simply jump on in the middle.

If you were to start Secret Wars with issue 0 or 1, you would be completely lost.  

What has led to this is that the Marvel Multiverse is collapsing and there is a convergence (wink-wink) between the Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Marvel Universe.  As a result, the two have formed a new reality called "Battleworld" where Dr. Doom is king and there are weird "Flashpoint"-esque variations on the main heroes.  But unlike Flashpoint, you don't care about any of these altered characters.  The whole story feels like a ploy to change the status quo.

There is nothing wrong with shaking up your universe.  But do it with some sense of importance.  I can barely remember a single scene from the first 2 issues.  The art is nice, but it feels like its going through the motions until we can do the big reboot.  If this is Marvel's Crisis, then it is gigantic let down.  At least DC is ramping up for the much anticipated Darkseid War, which should be all kinds of awesome.

In the end, you may have some fun with Convergence, but Secret Wars should have stayed secret.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day 2015

(originally posted from 2014)

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew people were told to remember the Passover.  To "remember" in that sense was not simple recollection.  By recalling and re-enacting, they believed that they somehow made the past present.

One of my traditions on Memorial Day to watch Saving Private Ryan and/or Glory.  I know that these are just artistic representations of the actual events and do not come close to really capturing the real horror and valor of those moments.

But film, more-so than any other art (besides maybe the culinary), has the ability to transport us to another place and time.  When I watch these movies, I can, in a small way, remember the way the Hebrews meant.  In those moments I hopefully get a small glimpse of that last full measure of devotion that was given by our brave soldiers who fought for our freedom.

I'm sure that you have better traditions than I do.  But regardless, let us take to today and make ourselves present to the those who marched into hell for a heavenly cause:

Our freedom.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Film Review: Mad Max - Fury Road

Full Disclosure: my wife and I went to see Pitch Perfect 2, but it was sold out.  So we reluctantly purchased tickets for the latest Mad Max movie.  I have never been fan of the series.  The bleakness and ugliness of that universe never appealed to me.  So it was with a fair amount of reluctance that I sat down to watch the Mad Max: Fury Road.

And it was thrilling.

The insanity of the world created by writer/director George Miller belies an amazingly tight narrative.  Most action movies are a series of different explosive action set pieces.  Fury Road is essentially one long, exhilarating action chase scene.

The story begins with Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) being run down and caught by a group of "war boys" who worship a crazy cult leader called "Immortan Joe" (Hugh Keays-Byrne).  Joe runs a wasteland compound where he controls the flow of fresh water, keeping his people dependent on him.  He keeps an economic relationship with other feudal kingdoms of "Gastown" and the "Bullet Farm."  His crazed war boys believe that if they die in glorious battle for Joe that they will forever in Valhalla.  Max happens to be O-Negative blood type and so is set said as a "blood bag" to refresh the blood of the irradiated war boys, particularly the zealous Nux (Nicholas Hoult).

All of this set up is told incredibly efficiently so as to set up the main story.  Joe sends a caravan to Gastown lead by Imerator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  But when she suddenly goes off course (for reasons we discover later), Joe summons the full strength of Gastown, the Bullet Farm, and all of his war boys to pursue them.  Nux, still in need of Max's blood, hooks his "blood bag" to the front of his car and thus the great chase begins.

Much has been already written about the epic car stunts in this film and they are not hyperbolic.  Much of the film was done with practical effects rather than CGI, which gives the action a rawness and weight and visceral punch.  You can feel the pressure of acceleration and you feel rocked with each crash.  This is a film of a young and hungry director, which is what impresses me so much about 70-year-old George Miller's fast and furious spectacle.  It is crazy in a way that should be outright silly.  But when the inmates run the asylum, normal logic is thrown out the window.  The production design drips with insanity that follows from some kind of crazed function.  Why is there a giant truck with 6 drummers and a flame-throwing guitar player?  Because this is the world that is broken!

The performances are outstanding.  The script trusts that the actors and director will be able to convey enough meaning and emotion with very little.  Hardy is great as Max.  Mel Gibson is one of the finest actors I have ever seen, but Hardy brings the same level of intensity and anger, all the while making the part his own.  You truly believe that Max could either shoot a frightened woman in the face or risk his life to save her.  Hardy makes this contradictory nature believable.  And the smallest gestures of kindness or encouragement carry incredible weight.

Theron is also great and honestly should get an Oscar nomination for this performance.  She reminded me of what Russell Crowe did in Gladiator.  She is smart, strong, and stoic.  She uses a cold, violent calculous to save those that she can.  Both she and Hardy have to carry the movie with mostly their non-verbals, which they do flawlessly (which should be no surprise for anyone who saw Hardy's amazing performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises).

The world is violent, disgusting, and ugly.  The movie is R-Rated and rightly so.  The violence is bloody and over-the top.  But the movie ironically uses a great deal of discretion.  A key element of the story is the sexual enslavement of women and yet the movie never shows you the women being abused in this way.  The movie is an odd style of gratuitous violence that is not exploitative.

One of the things I was surprised by in this story was the emphasis on human redemption.  There are truly evil, despicable people in this movie.  And yet even those that appear brainwashed beyond any hope show signs of humanity.  Max himself narrates at the beginning that he has been reduced to one instinct: survive.  But despite himself, he cannot let go of his nagging conscience.  Even when it makes no sense, he must do what is right.

And this makes the struggle for virtue so intense and powerful.  It is easy to be moral when life is care-free.  It feels impossible when the world has gone mad.  This movie makes the struggle for basic humanity feel heroic and epic when set in relief against this wasteland.

I especially love something Max says late in the movie about hope.  Hope cannot be something that is empty wishing and wanting.  Hope has to be based in resolution.  You have to be willing to fix what is broken.  Hope, without the will to work for the change, is empty.

In the end, Mad Max: Fury Road is the perfect escapist film for anyone who loves over-the-top action and the fun of some bloody mayhem (with a sprinkling of redemption on the side).

 4 out of 5 stars.

Remembering Pentecost

It has probably happened a lot more than I can recall, but this I cannot remember a time when Pentecost and Memorial Day so closely overlapped.

Memorial Day is the time when we as Americans remember the sacrifice of those men and women who came before us and laid down their lives on the altar of freedom for our country.  The Jewish idea of "remembering" is not simply recollection; it is to make the past present.  When we "remember" we bring those from the past present to our lives.

And I thought it would be appropriate to take a moment to remember those who were in the upper room at Pentecost.  They received the Holy Spirit and were called to go forth and lay down their lives on the altar of freedom: freedom from sin and death.

And what happened to them all?

The Virgin Mary lived out her natural life and was eventually Assumed body and soul into Heaven.

But what about the remaining 12?

44 AD - James the Greater is beheaded by Herod Agrippa

51 AD - Matthias, Judas Iscariot's replacement, is stoned to death and beheaded in Jerusalem.

60 AD - on November 30th, Andrew is dies on a decussate cross in Greece

62 AD - Bartholomew (Nathaniel) is skinned alive and crucified in modern day Iran

67 AD - Peter is condemned to crucifixion under Nero.  After stating that he was not worthy die the same way as the Lord, the Romans crucify our first pope upside-down on Vatican Hill.

72 AD - After walking all the way to India, Thomas is stabbed to death.

79 AD - Jude Thaddeus and Simon are murdered in modern day Iran.

90 AD - Philip is also crucified upside-down, but this time in modern day Turkey.

90 AD - Matthew dies, but we have conflicting reports.  Either he was stabbed in the back in Ethiopia or he was crucified and burned alive in modern day Iran or he died of natural causes.  There is no definitive history.

98 AD - John dies a natural death in Ephesus after being exiled to the island of Patmos for the Gospel.

When the Holy Spirit fell upon them, for most it was a death sentence.  The cost of giving us the Good News would be there lives.

And they did so willingly and without regret.

What has the Gospel ever cost me?

What has the Gospel ever cost you?

At the very least today, we can remember them and the price that was paid so we could have the joy of knowing Jesus.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Film Flash: Pitch Perfect 2

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

An inferior, but diverting sequel.  If you loved the 1st, you'll smile through the 2nd.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 18, 2015

And I'm Done With Game of Thrones

I've never recommended Game of Thrones as a TV show.

It is vulgar and violent and downright pornographic.

But I have been following the series since season one.  As bad as it was in terms of graphicness, it had sharp writing and amazing acting.  I took great pains to try to enjoy the good in it while avoiding the explicit scenes presented.

The thing I found most fascinating was how some characters tried to be good in this horrid world.


There are no saints in Westeros.  That point has been hammered home.  The closest thing we have to a real and true hero is Jon Snow, and he recently beheaded a man who was begging for mercy.

Tyrion Lannister fascinated me because was raised with no virtue anywhere in his upbringing and yet he still tries to be good.  He fails often, but still tries.

But the character I felt the most protective of was Sansa.  Since season one she has been through the most emotional torture and stress.  She has had to play a game of manners just to stay alive.  She even had to marry Tyrion.  But in one of the series' most touching scenes, as she begins to disrobe on their wedding night, Tyrion stops her and tells her that he will not come to her bed until she asks.  And so she remained pure.

Through a series of circumstances, Sansa ended up at her home, Winterfell, and married the sadistic son of the man who helped murder her mother and brother.  In the final scene of the episode, she is (for all intents and purposes) raped by her new husband in front of his slave.

I cannot tell you how much this sickened me.

Game of Thrones has always been a fairly rapey show.  But this was just too much.

In a show that has been awash in disgusting things, why is this my breaking point?

The show was always horribly violent.

I can take violence.

 I just cannot stand suffering, particularly the emotional suffering that Sansa is enduring.

I have been watching in hope that good will triumph over evil and that there is a greater plan at work in the horrors that have occurred.  Perhaps there still is, but I no longer care.

A long series very often only works because you care about the characters; you have an emotional connection to them.  Jon feels like the leader you could follow.  Tyrion feels like the witty friend you wished you had.   Sansa feels like the sister/daughter that you want to protect.  To see this happen to her offend those affections horribly.  And I accept that sometimes characters die, especially on a show like this.  But to have Sansa endure all that she has thus far only to end up here feels like a long day's journey into night.

Even shows like The Walking Dead wallow in darkness.  But unlike Game of Thrones, that show does so in order to highlight the struggle to retain basic human goodness.  Game of Thrones revels in its depravity.  I was hoping for a redemption from that darkness.  That is, after all, the main idea of our Christian faith: as horrible and debauched as the world is, "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son."

But the world of the show is a Christ-less world.

For now I think I shall leave Westeros in the shadow of their Son-less night.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Best: Top 10 Dystopian Movies

In honor of Mad Max: Fury Road, this Sunday Best list is dedicated to dystopias.

Originally I had designed the list to be not "Movies about Dystopias" but "Best Dystopias."  But I soon found a problem categorizing which future horror was better than another.  So instead of judging each different horrible future per se, I decided to simply judge the movie in which it takes place.

A few rules:
-the future presented had to be clearly dystopian.  Some movies like Back to the Future 2 or the first 3 X-Men films are a mixed bag.
-the movie had to take place primarily in the dystopia.  So Terminator 1 and 2, as well as the last X-Men movie are out.
-the judgment is on quality of the film and not the enjoyment.  Some dystopian works like the latest Mad Max are actually a good deal of fun.  Some are gut-wrenchingly awful.  But either way, the judgement will not fall on how the terrible future made me feel but on the excellence of the art.
-I would only choose one movie that was set in a dystopian universe.  For example, since all of the Resident Evil movies take place in the same dystopia, then I could only choose the best of that group if it made the list.  All other entries from that series would be disqualified.

So with that, here is the list:

10.  Robocop.

In this world you have a choice between savage street thugs and heartless corporations.  Everyday men like Murphy have their humanity stripped from them to fight crime in high-octane action.

9.  The Book of Eli.

Denzel turns in a fantastic performance as killer who is un-ironically serving God in a place where God has largely been ignored.

8.  Dredd

This film is tense and claustrophobic as Dredd and his partner have to climb a high-rise cramped with a city-level population to get to the bad guy.  Awesome action throughout.

7.  The Running Man

I admit this movie is very unserious compared to the book.  And this is not one of Arnold's best.  But there is something incredibly entertaining about watching this movie about how it doesn't seem to get its own irony about how the media desensitizes us to violence.

6.  Mad Max: Fury Road

(see my full review coming soon)

5.  WALL-E

The first 20 minutes of this film are some truly wonderful visual treats.  It is essential a silent film for a good portion.  The rest of the film doesn't live up to the beginning, but it is still very good.

4.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

I was not prepared for how good this movie was.  The performances were outstanding and the script was smart and sharp.  It is the best movie about apes taking over the planet.

3.  The Hunger Games

The thing that holds this series together is the performance of Jennifer Lawrence.  Her restraint and her abandon together make this horrible future seem real and makes us invest in the struggle against the Capitol.

2.  The Road

This is towards the top of my list of great movies I will never see again.  I was emotionally scarred after watching this movie for days and days after.  It is brutal, bleak, and beautifully done.

1.  The Matrix

The sequels have major problems, but once you get past the hype, the original Matrix is an incredible film on a lot of levels.  Not only is it visually stunning but it is the most creative thing the Wachowskis have ever done.  Seeing it again with fresh eyes, it still holds up well.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Trailer Time: The Muppets TV Show (2015)

I think this trailer looks, witty, funny, and mature.

I also think that this show is a MONUMENTAL mistake.

This show, I predict, will be the end of The Muppets.

Oh, I'm sure they will be around here and there.  But as a culturally important franchise, this will kill them.

The original Muppet movie is about wonder and childlike belief, sprinkled with guest stars.

This new show is a cynical twist on something wholesome: like fresh milk spiked with bad vodka.

Marijuana jokes?

Nudity jokes?

Sorry, but if I had children, I would keep them far away from this show.  Not only that, I would sadly probably keep them away from the earlier good Muppet outings for fear that they would watch this.

It is destroying the goodwill and legacy of this beloved franchise.  

In a desperate attempt to stay relevant, they are abandoning their timeless virtues and are nailing themselves to a fading moment in pop culture.

This is where the Rainbow Connection ends.


Film Flash: Mad Max - Fury Road

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

I was exhilarated despite myself.  The whole movie is one big, insane action scene.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 15, 2015

Trailer Time: Legends of Tomorrow

I have been loving both of DC's TV shows: Arrow and The Flash.

So when they announced they were doing a big team show, I was very excited.

I know that they can't use the BIG guys (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman), and this trailer kind of acknowledges that these aren't the JLA or the Avengers; they aren't the best of the best.

These people are the best they could find for the job.

I think this show has a lot of potential to highlight a good deal of the characters who have been on the margins of the other shows.  And it opens up a whole new dimension of storytelling with the time travel.

I also dig the fact that this team requires to "villains."  Particularly, Captain Cold was always, in my eyes, like Mr. White from Reservoir Dogs:  he is a murder and a criminal, but he does have an unwavering moral code to which he holds.  I think this will make for an interesting dynamic to the team.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Trailer Time: Supergirl TV Show

Generally speaking, I like it.

It has a bit of a glossy, cheesy vibe that reminds me of the Robin Williams/Sarah Michelle Gellar show The Crazy Ones for some reason.

It also got unnecessarily political in the first 30 seconds, which is annoying.

But I do like how they tackle the use of the word "girl" rather than "woman" for the hero's name.

If I had seen this trailer last year, I would have been less enthused.  But two things are influencing my perspective:

1.  The Flash Season One.  I remember seeing the first teases for the new Flash show and I was very much underwhelmed.  I didn't like the suit and I wasn't crazy about Grant Gustin.  But having watched it since it premiered, it might be my favorite show on TV right now.  Yes, it does have Dawson's Creek-esque angst to it and can be a little corny.  But it is still fantastic fun.  I think that this new Supergirl, produced by the same people as The Flash and Arrow, could also be as fun.

2.  Felicity Smoak.  Speaking of Arrow, my favorite character on that wonderful show is Felicity Smoak.  She is perfectly adorkable.  Kara in the Supergirl trailer looks like Felicity with super powers.  And that is a show I would watch.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

New Evangelizers Post: An Interview About Ministry

I have a new article up at  

A few months back, I was interviewed by a former student about my thoughts on Christian ministry.  (I have revised it so that it uses the pseudonym WL Grayson)  I’m afraid he makes me sound better than I am, especially when I reference ideas from wiser and holier people than me like CS Lewis and Mother Theresa.  Here is an excerpt of what he wrote.

I should probably introduce Mr. Grayson, a veteran teacher of fourteen years, ten of them at my former school.  He currently teaches the freshmen level theology courses, film appreciation, film production, theater, and moderates the Film Club, Socratic Club, Juggling Club, and Board Game Club. 

He is not the tallest teacher on the faculty, but he casts a very large presence and is one of the teachers who I have the highest respect for out of any of my teachers before or since.  After the students leave the room, we sit down and begin our discussion on ministry.  Our discussion begins as any discussion with an expert in the Socratic Method should begin: with defining our terms. 

Grayson begins with defining ministry as “identifying a need and voluntarily addressing it” and then moves to stating that in Christian ministry the need that is to be addressed is the salvation of souls.  He states that “all ministry is geared towards this one fundamental need.” 

You can read the entire article here.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday Best: TV Moms

IIn honor of Mother's Day, here is a list if the ten best TV moms of all time:

10. Frankie Heck (The Middle):
There is a lot wrong with Frankie as a mom: she is disorganized, envious, lazy, and filled with other careless vices. What makes her great is that despite her shortcomings, it is clear that she had built a life around her family. She might not do it well, but she raised them with good morals and values and let them know they are loved.

9. Shirley Bennett (Community):
When her husband Andre left her, Shirley worked hard to get an education to build a business for her kids. And when she had a chance to reconcile with her husband, she understood that children have a better shot at life with 2 parents and tried again to build a family.

8. Kitty Foreman (That '70's Show)
Her children made some horrid decisions, but Kitty really tried to raise them right. She was a bit too naive, but she reached out and made a home for those had worse parents and tried to show others how to be better parents 

7. Marge Simpson (The Simpsons):
Marge has her occasional lapses in judgement with gambling, alcohol, steroids and the like.  But most of the time she does her best to create a nurturing home for her children and their bumbling father.

6. Deborah Barone (Everybody Loves Raymond):
In a cast of quirky characters, Deborah often needs to be the straight center. In that insanity she holds together her family. 

5. Carol Brady (The Brady Bunch):
Even though she gets a lot of flack for using s housekeeper to raise her family, Carol never allowed a separation of affection between her natural and adopted children. 

4. Laurie Grimes (The Walking Dead):
This might be the most controversial choice in the list. Yes, she started an affair with a man who became psychotic, but to be fair, she thought her husband was dead and it was the zombie apocalypse. But what puts her so high on this list, is that when it came time to choose between her life and that of her unborn child, she gave hers away. And as beatiful were her last words to her son. Instead of telling Carl to do whatever he needs to do to survive, she tells him to be good, no matter how hard the world makes it to do so. What better legacy could a mother leave.

3. Claire Huxtable (The Cosby Show):
Not only was she an accomplished lawyer, she was a no-nonsense mom who demanded the best out of her kids in order to have them succeed.

2. Lorelei Gilmore (Gilmore Girls):
There are a lot of problems Lorelei had in her personal life, her relationships, etc. but she was actually a good mother. Or at least she was the best mother she knew how to be. Yes, she had a buddy-buddy relationship with her daughter, which I generally hate. But she refused to be the "cool mom" who looked the other way while her child did wrong. When her daughter started breaking up a marriage, Lorelei confronted her despite the hatred that came her way.

1. Martha Kent (Smallville):
Smart and accomplished, she made sure to put her adopted son first in all things and raise him with a solid moral compass. She taught him the value of hard work, good love, and real life.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Film Review: Avengers - Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron is very good.

But it is not as good as the first Avengers.

I feel weird about starting off a review like that, but is the primary thought I am left with about this sequel.  I think that it's important to get out of the way because if you go and see this movie and expect it to be The Empire Strikes Back to The Avenger's Star Wars, then it will miss the mark.  If you go in accepting that this one does not quite recapture the inspiring cinematic magic of the first, then you can enjoy the movie as it is, which is still quite excellent.

The movie picks up after the events of Captain America - The Winter Soldier as the Avengers are attacking a Hydra base to recover Loki's staff from the original Avengers movie.  The opening scene is action-movie heaven.  The scenes are not just big and bold, but they are fun and creative.  When you have characters with all of these different powers, you want to see them used in new ways.  And director Joss Whedon more than delivers.  It is here that our heroes face off against super-powered siblings: super-fast Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and telepathic/telekinetic Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).  It is here that Scarlett Witch places a deep seeded fear in Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) about the inadequacy of the Avengers to face the world-destroying threats against them.

This leads to the major arc of the movie:  Tony and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), decide that they need to create an AI led army that can protect the world.  The script smartly raises all of the obvious "mad scientist" problems with this, but Tony makes a convincing argument as to why this level of defense is needed: The Avengers are not enough to save the world.

Of course things go horribly wrong.

Loki was a fantastic villain for the first Avengers, as he was deadly but charismatic and charming.  Ultron (voiced by James Spader), fills this role nicely.  This evil AI is filled with seething rage and hilarious sarcasm.  He is, in every way, the dark side of Tony Stark.  He is the "Iron" without the "Man."  He concludes that the problem with human violence is the human race.  However, unlike emotionless terminators, Ultron is hyper-emotional, particularly his gnawing anger.  This makes for a nice change from most evil robot movies.

Aside from the incredibly action, the movie lingers a long time on the just-as-entertaining character interactions.  It is so much fun to watch our heroes kick back and laugh with each other or talk about ethics while chopping wood.  These scenes should slow the movie down to a grinding halt, but they are emotional, enriching, and sometimes as downright fun to watch as Iron Man fighting the Hulk (arguably the best part of the movie).

The budding romance that was hinted at in the first movie between Black Widow/Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johanson) and Hulk brings a lot of heart to the movie.  The reason why she says she's attracted to the skittish scientist is dialogue gold.  And you can see Banner fighting his attraction for reasons that only become clear later.

The other character who gets some much needed character development is Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).  In fact, I would go so far as to say that he is the heart of the movie.  He is a mortal among gods and monsters.  Black Widow proved her essentialness to the team during her interrogation of Loki in the first movie.  But Hawkeye provides a different role.  He helps the team hold on to their humanity.  He alternately funny, deadly, inspiring, challenging, sarcastic, and vulnerable.  He gives speech towards the end in the middle of the climactic battle where he says, "We're fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow.  None of this makes sense!"  And yet in the context of the team dynamic, it does.  This is once again due to Whedon's masterful writing.

Tony Stark also has some wonderfully dark turns.  He thinks he is the smartest guy in the room and that he knows better than everyone.  He moves forward with the Ultron plan so quickly because he says there isn't time to discuss this as a committee.  But he is too smart to let things go wrong.  When confronted with the horror of his actions, Tony begins to crack.  It is Steve Rogers/ Captain America who wisely points out after all the madness: "Every time someone tries to stop a war before it starts, innocent people die.  Every time."

Beyond that, however, the other Avengers don't have a lot of character development.  They all have cool moments, but they feel like they are there to service a cramped story.  This biggest drawback to the movie is that it feels cramped.  It is too much story in too small a space.  Great actors like Andy Serkis as Klaw pop and shine, but then are quickly eschewed from the scene.

I heard that the original cut was over 3 hours long.  This makes sense, as this definitely feels like an abridged rather than streamlined story.  This is especially true when the character Vision is introduced.  I will not go into the spoiler territory here, but he appears late in the movie and he just feels like a shoe-horned, odd fit.  Even the character design felt a little off to me.

Thematically, the movie leans very heavily on traditional values.  Tony's arrogance at playing God has lead to a Frankenstein-esque monstrosity.  Home and family are seen as the ideal: the reason why the Avengers fight.  The importance of children and the pain of their absence is acutely felt.  And of course,  couraguous Christ-like self-sacrifice is the hallmark of heroism in the Avengers.  Whedon's atheism does creep in a little towards the end as he tries to reconcile nihilism with heroism, to questionable success.  But the rest of the film keeps things on a traditional moral track.

And there are plenty of geek moments (Thor's hammer plays heavily into these).  And there are more scenes  that are building to the plot of the next Avengers movie.  Age of Ultron has the same struggles that most middle films have: being compared to the past while looking off to the future.  This makes it difficult to have the story stand on its own.  And this movie does change the Marvel status quo, which is something that I very much applaud the company for doing by taking such risks.

Despite these few criticisms, Avengers: Age of Ultron is everything that you are looking for in a fun, bold, action-packed, smart summer blockbuster.

4 out of 5 stars.

Film Review: Cinderella

Okay, I know I'm very late with this review, but life has been very busy.

Anyway… here is my review.

One of the biggest challenges with making the live action version of the classic Disney film Cinderella is the fact that it is so well known.  We already know all of the major story beats and the basic outlines of the characters.  And since this is a Disney movie and not a revisionist version like Ever After or Into the Woods, we can expect few surprises.

Thankfully, director Kenneth Branagh understood this.  Having made films of some of the most famous plays ever written, Branagh knows that in a movie like this it is not about surprise but spectacle.  The audience wants the familiar story but they want it painted on a broader tapestry.

Cinderella is a beautifully shot, colorful realization of a Disney animated film.  The story expands much of the surprisingly short animated feature.  Ella (Lilly James), later given the "cinder" moniker, is still the central character.  We spend much more time with Ella's father (Ben Chaplin) and her mother (Haley Atwell).  Ella lives an idyllic existence until her mother's health takes a turn for the worse.  And like all dying mentors in movies, she gives her daughter this wisdom:  "Have courage and be kind."

Ella's father then marries the Stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and takes in her two 1-dimenssionaly wicked step sisters (Sophia McShera and Holiday McGrainger).  Things go from bad to worse as these worldly women live high on the hog and then suddenly lose the main breadwinner.  This forces Ella to run the entire household for the most part like a slave.  One day, she has too much and goes riding off, where she bumps into the charming Prince Kit (Richard Madden) who she mistakes for an apprentice at the castle.  This is probably the best embellishment to the original story.  It gives this couple a chance to meet and build up some chemistry before they have their night at the ball.

The performances are surprisingly good.  I don't mean to say that any of the actors are bad, but the material is meant to be a bit on the simple side.  And yet masters like Blanchett are able to perform both the clear wickedness that children will see while at the same time giving subtle dimension to her anger.  She is a woman who has lost love and is gnawed by an unwanted jealousy of the affection and joy that Ella has.  Derek Jacobi plays the king, the Kit's father, who shares some very touching scenes that explore the love and sadness that exists often with fathers and sons.  James is very good as the lead who does the difficult job of making virtue interesting to watch on screen and Madden comes off as charming and regal while being approachable and affable.

I loved the visuals of this film.  The colors are bold and exciting in the way I remember the movies of my childhood.  Branagh gives them a sweeping scale and good touch of fun.

The themes are also wonderfully rich and Christian.  The whole point of Ella's journey is that she lives by her mother's mantra: have courage and be kind.  Because in that is magic.  It is her kindness that ultimately wins her Kit's heart.  It is her kindness that leads to her introduction to her fairy godmother (a delightfully silly Helena Bonham Carter).  And it is this kindness that moves her to serve her family.

One of the things I thought was beautiful was that Ella was not someone who was beaten down and unaware of her own self-worth.  She knew she was special.  But she served because she knew it was better to be kind.  When she is forced to give up her room and live in the attic, she does so out of kindness and finds the goodness in her new quarters.  She is happier in her servitude than her family is in their selfishness.

That, in and of itself, makes this a wonderfully moral tale.  And Ella does struggle with remaining kind to those who are not, but in the end she must choose between resentment and forgiveness.  Those last few moments were surprisingly powerful.

I would take any child to see this, especially a daughter (boys would enjoy a bit of sword-fighting practice, but the movie is mostly pageantry).  It is enjoyable and edifying.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Game of Thrones and the Catholic Nightmare

I think I finally figured something out about the popular culture's relationship do the Catholic Church while watching Game of Thrones the other night.

For those unfamiliar with the series, I cannot say that I recommend it.  While there is some fantastic acting and some darn good writing, it is awash in visually and thematic putridness.  As to why I would even watch such a thing, we will discuss later.

The show takes place in a fantasy world with many religions.  One of them is called "The Faith of the Seven."  It is in appearance and practice very much like the Catholic Church, where instead of a Trinity, you have a Septminity of 7 Persons in 1 God.  On the show, the capitol city finds most of the leaders of the Faith of the Seven to be worldly hypocrites.


But then someone new comes along who seems filled with humble piety called the High Sparrow.  In the episodes he has been in, he is reminiscent of St. Francis or even Pope Francis.  He takes care of the poor and appears wise and lowly.  He is then elevated to the level of High Septon (essentially Pope).  Then, he is allowed by the Queen mother to have his own army: the Faith Militant.

After the army is formed, we don't see the High Sparrow for the rest of the episode.  But his followers smash idols of other religions, they go into brothels and destroy them and they find the most famous homosexual in the capitol and imprison him.

That's when it clicked with me:  This is what the pop culture thinks that the Catholic Church is.

I've known that have been distrusting and dismissive of us.  But watching this I understood that this is their secret fear.  They think that even the most outwardly pious and humble of us (like Pope Francis or the High Sparrow), secretly want an army so that they can punish people who we believe are sexual deviants.  Game of Thrones just showed us what they think we would do with any strong political power.

It now makes a lot more sense to me why any acceptance or respect of Catholicism in pop culture must be destroyed.  To allow it to flourish is to leave open the possibility that homosexuals will be thrown into prison and people engaged in other sexual sins will be exposed to punishment, violence, and torture.

Now to be sure whenever you give the power of the state and the Church to any group of people corruption is often the case.

But this nightmare of the pop culture sees the Catholic Church as obsessed with punishing those who engage in sexual sins.  And if you are engaged in any kind of sexual practice that goes against Church teaching, you are pre-targeted by the Church for the coming purge should we get any power.

I know understand more directly how the pop culture holds the Church in disdain, but it does so out of fear.

The fear, I believe, is irrational.

I remember I was listening to guest lecturing priest at a college I attended who said that we had to get beyond harping on the sexual sins.  I can tell you that as a religion teacher, I don't often bring it up if I can help it, because I have bigger things to talk about like Redemption, Transubstantiation, the infinite Love of God, etc.  But I do end up talking about it.  A lot.  The reason why is that so many questions from students have come from their struggles here.

To say the Church talks about sex too much is like saying the leader of a Weight Watchers meeting is obsessed with junk food.  Yes, there is more to losing weight than cutting out junk food, but people ask a lot about it so answers must be given.

Nevertheless, Game of the Thrones has given me a new insight into the pop culture.

Whether it meant to do so or not.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sunday Best: Marvel Cinematic Universe Ranked

In honor of Avengers: Age of Ultron (full review coming soon), I thought I would take this time to rank the previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The following are only the ones a part of the MCU, so no X-Men or previous Spider-Men.

1. Avengers
-The best of the series.  A magical and amazing superhero epic.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
-I was shocked at how good this movie was.  Blew me out of the water.

3.  Iron Man
-This set the tone for all of the others and re-introduced us to the awesomeness of RDJ

4.  Guardians of the Galaxy
-So surprised how much I liked this.  Some of the most fun I've had in the theater in years.

5.  Avengers: Age of Ultron
-A worthy successor to the best of the movies.

6.  The Incredible Hulk
-An overlooked, exciting film

7.  Iron Man 3
-What it lacked in awesome villainy, it made up for in coolness

8.  Captain America: The First Avenger
-A bit hokey but a fun throwback

9.  Thor
-A big, bold spectacle.

10.  Thor: The Dark World
-Not as good as the first, but some great Loki scenes.

11.  Iron Man 2
-It had its moments, but it did not live up to its potential.


Trailer Time: The Nightmare

I've seen a lot of people online talk about how scary this trailer is.

I actually suffer from sleep paralysis so watching this was like, "Eh, just another night."


More Proof that the Pop Culture Hates Me

One of the main themes of this blog is my affection for popular culture while at the same time understanding that much of it antithetical to my beliefs.

One of my beliefs as a devout Catholic is that God and nature have defined marriage as between a man and woman.  An attempt to change that is wrong.

There are many people who disagree and we engage each other in discussion trying to persuade the other.  Sometimes humor and mocking are used on either side.  That is fine.

But then there is an abandonment of humor to enter into polemics.

Case in point:

Last night on Saturday Night Live, Colin Jost said this on Weekend Update:

“During the Supreme Court hearing on the constitutionality of gay marriage, Justice Samuel Alito asked if homosexuals are allowed to marry, what would happen if a group of two men and two women tried to apply for a marriage license. Well, Sam, I’m no legal expert, but they’d probably tell them ‘no.’ Because that’s polygamy, and it’s illegal, and also, not at all the same thing. So, let’s stick to the case at hand, and not try to turn this whole thing into some kind of gay word problem. Cause if the gay marriage train leaves Massachusetts at 3 pm, and the traditional marriage train leaves Tennessee at 6 pm, it doesn’t matter, because look around you, everyone’s already on board the gay train.”

Now, some of you might say that analyzing a joke goes against the nature of humor or that if I was secure in my beliefs then I should have a sense of humor about it.

But here's the problem: it wasn't a joke.  It was a lecture.

Read it again and you'll see that there is no actual punchline.  It ends with an applause line to rile up the crowd.  It was a political stump speech, not a joke.

At no time did he point out why Alito asked the question.  He simply mocked him.

Jost said: Well, Sam, I’m no legal expert, but they’d probably tell them ‘no.’ Because that’s polygamy, and it’s illegal, and also, not at all the same thing."

He completely side-steps the point of Alito's question.  If we can change the definition of marriage for homosexuals, why not multiple partners?  Jost saying that polygamy is illegal is nonsensical.  The whole point of the Supreme Court case is that same-sex "marriage" is illegal in most states now.  Was Jost meaning that because something is illegal not it should always be.  If that is the case, then he would be in favor of ruling against same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

He goes on:  "Cause if the gay marriage train leaves Massachusetts at 3 pm, and the traditional marriage train leaves Tennessee at 6 pm, it doesn’t matter, because look around you, everyone’s already on board the gay train.”

I almost admire the opposing side's hubris to claim that "everyone's" on their side.  It does have the advantage of creating a sense of inevitability.  Of course if "everyone" were on the gay train, why are the bothering going to the Supreme Court.  Just put it to a vote and be done with it.  Surely in places like California it would pass (oh, sorry).

Anyway, my point is not to argue for marriage.  As I said, if you believe differently I am more than willing to engage in dialogue.

But notice what this "comedy" show has done.  Taking its cue from Jon Stewart and his ilk, instead of actually finding some humor and making actual jokes, Jost simply said: "Alito asked a question that highlights a problem with my side, so rather than answer it I will call him stupid and out of touch with everyone else who matters."

That isn't comedy.  That's (and I hate to say it) bullying.

Jost has informed me that the popular culture believes that everyone is on the gay train.

Which means, in their eyes, I am no one.

Not that my self worth is defined in any way by what is said by comedians who do not know how to write jokes.  But this serves as another reminder of the emnity that my pop culture bears towards me.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Film Flash: Avengers - Age of Ultron

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

A fun and action-packed spectacle with great character chemistry. (though the 1st one was better).

4 out of 5 stars.