Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Best: TV Dramas of All Time #8 - Veronica Mars

(2004 - 2007)

It took me a while to begin watching this show.  I had heard good things about it, but all I got from the promos was that it was a high school Nancy Drew.  This concept, while somewhat interesting, didn't really appeal to me.  I probably would not have picked it up except a strange thing happened.  Even though the show aired on the UPN, it was owned by CBS.  And so one Saturday when there was nothing on I was flipping stations and came upon an episode.  This was especially strange because the show was only in its first season and nowhere near ready for syndication, yet here it was having its repeats aired on a more popular network.  

I only saw about 5 minutes of it.  But that was enough.  I was hooked.

The show revolves around teenager Veronica Mars (a breakout Kristen Bell), who works after school for her father, private investigator and former sheriff Keith Mars (a fantastic Enrico Colantoni).  This outsider uses her detective skills to solve mysteries surrounding her high school classmates, but this often leads to larger issues.  

There are a number of things that make Veronica Mars stand out.

1.  Mystery inside mysteries.
Each episode brought to Veronica a fresh mystery that would most likely be solved by the end of the episode.  But within that mystery would often be a little clue to a larger mystery that would build for the entire season.  In season one, Veronica's best friend Lily (Amanda Seyfried) is murdered.  This sets off a chain of events that sets Veronica as an outcast and her fathered fired from law enforcement.  As she solves the mysteries of her classmates, she finds more and more out about the events that led up to Lily's death.  The show does an even better job in season 2.  It was incredibly fun and engaging to watch all of the little mysteries add up to the bigger ones

2.  Radical Character Development
It is really incredible to watch the pilot to the show and see the drastic journey the characters make over the course of 3 short years.  Long-form story telling like TV or comic books allows such an opportunity to slowly grow and change a character.  Most shows are too afraid to do so for fear of alienating viewers from the qualities that made them connect to those characters.  As a result, they remain static.  But Veronica Mars allowed their characters to grow, evolve, and sometimes devolve.  This is best seen in Logan Echols (Jason Dohring) who went from a flat villain you loved to hate into the true heart of the show.

3.  Acting
As a show on a lower-rated network, Veronica Mars never had the budget to make most of its episodes look as polished as they should have been.  But the series more than made up for that with its actors.  Bell, to my mind, will always be a star.  Strong, smart, vulnerable, flawed, and heroic all come through her performance in a completely believable way.  Colantoni was a real surprise for me, having only been familiar with his comedy work.  But there was a strength mixed with kindness and danger that I have rarely seen in a television performance.  And I already mentioned Dohring who is so charismatic that even when he comes off as evil, there is enough good will there to keep you rooting for him.

"An Echolls Family Christmas"

I think that it takes about ten episodes to really appreciate Veronica Mars.  This was the random episode I caught on CBS that hooked me.  This episode revolves around a late night poker game where all the cash was stolen.  Everyone at the game suspects the other and the only neutral person they can turn to is Veronica.  Not only does she come through, but she does it in a way that drops the mic.

On top of this, the episode brings in some important elements of Lily's murder forward into the story.  It is really here that you begin to see the anthological and mythological elements of the show come together.

"Show Me the Monkey"
This was the episode that jettisoned the year-long mystery.  Instead, the series resolved the main mystery the episode earlier and began another one.  But unlike years past where the mysteries seemed to develop organically from the story, this felt tacked on.  As a result the main series mysteries felt rushed and disconnected from the main lives of the characters.

"One Angry Veronica"
Usually the writing for the show was very sharp and smart.  But this one felt forced and completely artificial.  While Veronica and her boyfriend were broken up, he impregnated another classmate.  That classmate wakes up from a coma in this episode and is desperate to not have her baby raised by her own parents because of their radical Christian beliefs.  Not only did this feel like a soap opera, but it also felt like an unnecessary jab and Christians.  To be very fair, there were many times the show could have taken the low and easy road of making devout Christians the bad guys because of their Christianity.  But to my surprise this was often not the case.  This episode was a regretful backslide.

"Not Pictured"
This was the big finale to big mystery this season: someone caused a bus crash that killed many students at Veronica's high school.  Slowly over the course of the season the pieces began to fit together.  I cannot say too much without giving anything away, but this episode gave us an answer that was both surprising and inevitable.  The final confrontation was also scary, gut-wrenching, cathartic, and masterfully acted.  Not only that, but a dangling mystery from the first season is brought up in the end in a devastating way that could feel contrived but instead felt like an anguished character revelation.  If Veronica Mars never had another good episode, this one would be enough.

Ultimately, one of the reasons I love mystery shows is that they are the search for truth.  Perhaps it is the Catholic or the Philosopher in me, but I am so attracted to shows where characters are dedicated to the search for what is true no matter what the cost.  Veronica (whose name means "true image") is always looking for the truth, as should any honest person.

Those who are fans of the show are completely devoted.  It was a minor miracle that creator Rob Thomas got the show made the way he wanted and then even more of a miracle that he was able to make a feature film sequel.  I have always hoped that Veronica Mars would have a bigger audience so that more people can appreciate this little oasis of TV excellence.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

TV Tap Out - How Far is Too Far?

On this blog we coined the phrase "TV Threshold" as a counter-point to "Jump the Shark."

A show "Jumps the Shark" when it reaches an point after which the quality gradually degrades.

A "TV Threshold" looks more to the ascent of a series rather than its decline, asking how many episodes into a show do you need to be before you understand the show's goodness.

But now I want to focus on something else, not the rise of a good show or its gradual decline.

I'd like to talk about the "TV Tap Out."

Sometimes I will be watching a series, maybe even for several seasons, but then something will occur on that show which will make me completely stop watching.

This principle could be applied to any other form of serialized storytelling, like comic books or a book series.

For the most part, this does not apply to how I watch movies.  I will often finish a movie, even if it has something repulsive happen in it.  I figure that since the film is so short (compared to watching a series), that either that horrible thing will be resolved by the plot or if not at least the bad movie experience will be over soon.  In fact, I've only ever walked out of one movie in the theater (John Carpenter's Vampires, in case you were wondering).

But with a TV show, it is a much larger investment of a person's life.  Time is life and the amount of life many of us, including myself, give to television is not insignificant.  The wastefulness of this is a topic for another day.  For now, let us focus on the significance of the Tap Out.

A few observations

-Tap Out events are completely subjective.  They are less about a particular artistic objection, but instead deal with a person's own internal taste.  You determine a "Jump the Shark" moment by analyzing overall quality.  Tap Out events are visceral, emotional responses.  They have nothing to do with a show's quality in acting, writing, directing or the like.

-If the Tap Out event happens late in a series, it has to be very strong.  If I have only started a series and it does something to turn me off, I can quickly turn away.  But if I have made a significant temporal and emotional investment in the show, I am more likely to forgive something as an uncommon misstep in an otherwise good show.

So what are my Tap Out triggers?

After reflecting on the times I threw up my hands and gave up on a show, below are my Tap Outs.


1.  Heroic or Comedic Blasphemy.

If a character acts out against God or the Christian faith, it is not necessarily a deal-breaker.  In the context of the story it could be part of this character's arc towards redemption.  On The Walking Dead, Maggie comes to a crisis of faith and turns away.  But by the end of the season, she finds solace in praying with others again.  The blasphemy could also be done to highlight a person's badness.  On The Office, Gabe says "I sure as hell don't believe in God."  This statement is met with shock and revulsion and only underscores Gabe's emptiness.  On Dawson's Creek, atheist Jen gives a blasphemous eulogy in a church for her dead friend.  But she is called on this by her grandmother who points out that Jen was not being honest and helpful but selfish and hurtful.

But there are times when blasphemy is used for comedic effect, not to make fun of the blasphemy but to make fun of the faith.  My wife tapped out of Arrested Development when Gob made a mockery of the crucifixion by being bound to a cross in a church for a publicity stunt.

2.  Loss of Innocence.

I am more tolerant of immoral behavior in adults than I am with children.  That isn't to say that the bad behavior of grown-ups is excusable.  But there is something especially sad when I see children engage in morally destructive behavior because of the loss involved.  Adults have already made their choices that have formed a good portion of their character.  But when I child does it, my heart breaks because they cripple their spiritual lives, perhaps irrevocably.

At the end of season 2 of Lie to Me, the main character's 16-year-old daughter told him that she was sleeping with her boyfriends.  I never watched another episode.  On Modern Family, Phil found out that his teenage daughter lost her virginity to her idiot boyfriend.  Phil's response was to tell her that he respected her choices.  She smiled and told the camera, "I have a cool dad."  I soon stopped watching.  I enjoyed the first episode of Blackish.  But in the second, the mother talked about her son engaging in personal sexual self-gratification and she called it "adorable."  And with that, I was out.

3.  Abortion.

If a main character has an abortion, it becomes almost impossible for me to enjoy the series any more.  I've found this is more often the case in a comic book series than a TV series.  TV writers tend to understand that most audiences also react strongly to a main character engaging in an abortion.  If the dilemma comes up, both sides are presented but the main character usually chooses life, like on The Walking Dead.  There are exceptions like Maude and Scandal, but those shows already trafficked in controversy.

I can think of two comic book series that I stopped buying when a main character had an abortion: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Invincible.  No matter how much I wanted to get past it and continue with characters I had spent so much time with, I could not.

4.  Sexual Assault.

This isn't always a deal breaker.  It depends on the context.  Veronica Mars has a pilot episode where she wakes up from an aftermath of being ruffied and raped.  But since this happened very early on was part of the character's past, it came off as more of a tragic backstory than a story development.  But when it happens later in a series, it is much more problematic for me.

On Downton Abbey, when Anna was raped, it broke the spell of the show.  The series was based on the idea that the lives of the servants and the nobility are as dramatic as each other in different ways.  But once she was attacked, I was unable to care about any of the noble family's soap opera problems.  Game of Thrones also had this effect.  While there had been a number of sexual assaults already, the rape of Sansa was too much.  As a viewer, I had spent 5 seasons developing a strong sense of protectiveness for Sansa.  She was constantly in danger and had nothing to protect her but her wits.  But her violation felt like a betrayal to the audience.  Even the words of her attacker to Reek are addressed to us when he says, "You knew her as a girl, now watch her become a woman."  There was a sickness to that whole story development that gnawed at me so that I could not get past it.


So those are my TV Tap Outs.  You may agree with them or disagree, but they are what they are.

What are yours?

Share in the comments below.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sunday Best: TV Dramas of All Time #9 - Gilmore Girls


File:Gilmore girls title screen.jpg

I am a gigantic fan of the Marx Brothers.  I have watched their movies dozens of times.  What always grabs me is not just general humor.  I am in love with their ability, particularly Groucho's, to speak a mile-a-minute presenting a lightning-fast wit with the sharpest of dialogue.  I have never encountered writing like that in television.

Until Gilmore Girls.

I had ignored this show for a number of years, thinking it to be another soap-opera, mother/daughter show.  And yes, the show has soap opera elements that revolve around a mother and a daughter.  But it is so much more.

Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino created such a lovely and strange world in her small town of Star Hollow, Connecticut.  The inhabitants were strange, but in a way that we could see our own strangeness in them.  And while they were all a bit strange, they were not flat.  Gilmore Girls gave humanity, depth, and dimension to characters who would never have had it in lesser hands.

The performances were also utterly fantastic.  Even with the best writing, if you cannot find actors to make it sing, it will land with a thud.  Fortunately the casting was great.  Lauren Graham was amazing as Lorelai Gilmore.  She is alternately funny, dramatic, sage, and immature in a way that never feels false.  Alexis Bledel also does an admiral job as her daughter Rory, the bookish girl who originally acted as a foil to her wild-child mother.  This show also had seasoned actors Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann as Lorelai's wealthy parents.  But the most overlooked and important performance was Scott Patterson as Luke.  There was a strange, hyper-reality that surrounds the characters of Stars Hollow.  But Patterson's Luke feels grounded in a way that is different from everyone else.  He adds a stable, masculine presence that presents goodness and decency as dependable and attractive.

Each week the show was sure to be a treat for all those hungry for sharp writing.  It did begin to decline after a few years with the devolution of Rory's character particularly.  But it still stood above most TV shows around.



The opening scene sets up everything you need to know about the show.  The dialogue flies and snaps.  The entire episode is horribly charming as we are introduced to the main plotline of the show with the estranged relationships and the quirky tone.  From that first episode, you got the sense that you were watching something unlike anything else.

"The Long Morrow"
Amy Sherman-Palladino's last episode on the series she created was like a gigantic middle finger to the show.  Being fired from her own show may have embittered her, but this episode is filled with bitter goodbyes.  It also has Lorelei make the most irrational and destructive decision of the entire series (which is saying a lot).  But it does so in a way that not only hurts the show itself, but hurts fans of the show who were emotionally invested in the story.

"Last Week Fights, This Week Tights."
I almost stopped watching the show with this episode and it was over something that was unrelated to the main story.  Lorelei is on the phone with Rory and says that she just met someone whose name begins with the letter "J."  Rory's response is "Not Jesus!  I'm sick of Him and Mel Gibson."  In a show that had been generally respectful of religion (though it show's Rory's best friend's mom as a bit of fanatic), I was shocked at this outright insult to the faith.  And it forever soured me against the character Rory. It is fitting that this episode is the beginning of a downward spiral that eventually turns her into a homewrecking adulteress.  But this utterly pointless and hurtful line still stings.  I hated even writing about it.  The only way for me to continue being engaged in the show was to see Rory as no longer the protagonist but as the tragic villain in need of redemption.  Luckily, that is kind of how the next few seasons play out.  Rory comes off as entitled, selfish, and spoiled.  And all of these qualities lead to hurt and heartache in her life.

"Bon Voyage"
I am a big fan of finales done right, and this was a finale done right.  A great finale is one that gives you a proper goodbye to characters in whom who have invested several hours of your life.  It gives you a cathartic sense of closure and that is what this episode does.  It marks several endings and resolutions to several of the different relationships.  The performances and directing wonderfully reflect this sense of goodbye.  But for me, my favorite moment was between Luke and Lorelai.

 I often praise this show for its quick wit with a multitude of words.  But I love when a writer can capture the essence of a character in a single line.  When Lorelai confronts Luke about all of the hard work he did for her and Rory, he simply says: "I like to see you happy."  This has been his character from the beginning and it is the reason why they belong together.


Gilmore Girls is several types of shows in one.  It is a family drama, a romantic comedy, a coming of age tale, and a farce of social class.  But above all it was a show with some of the best dialogue ever written for the small screen.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Diversity and the Oscars

There has been a lot of controversy over the lack of minorities nominated for Oscars this year.  And then the uproar has gotten worse for those who are expressing their opinions about the lack of minorities.

So I figured what harm could I do by throwing my hat into the ring.

Now I know that some of you are of the opinion that this and all award shows are pointless.  This article is not meant to dissuade you from your position.  But for those who have enjoyed the Oscars in the past, here is my analysis.

The lack of diversity in the Oscars is a real problem for the Academy.  The only reason why this award has any cache is that it comes with it an air of respectability.  Nobody cares if you win an MTV Movie Award, but they do care about an Academy Award.  The difference is that the Academy built up over the years a reputation for finding and awarding real excellence in cinema.

But as cinema evolves, this lack of diversity is chipping away at this reputation.

And here is the thing: the racial component is only a symptom of the real lack of diversity.

The problem with the Academy is that they have developed a very narrow-minded view regarding what is and is not worthy of nomination.

The Academy is made up of people who have worked in the industry for a number of years.  They have to apply or be sponsored for membership.  But the fasted way to get in is to be nominated for an Oscar.  Part of the problem is that this leads to a self-perpetuating system.  The types of films and performances that get nominations lead to those new members nominating the same types of films and performances.

This leads to certain formulas to increase your chance of earning Oscars.  For example, straight actors playing gay is a huge factor (Tom Hanks, William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Jared Leto, Philip Seymore Hoffman, Sean Penn, etc) or beautiful actresses uglyfing themselves (Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts, Hilary Swank, Marion Cotillard, etc).  The movies themselves increase their chances of winning if they are about the movie industry, Southern California, or are a bio-pic in general.

This narrowing of focus leads to a lack of diversity.  But this is not limited to race.  The Academy tends to close itself off to diverse ways of thinking.  I seriously doubt that 13 Hours will get a nomination, and even though American Sniper was nominated it won very little.  And despite the monumental cinematic and cultural achievement of The Passion of the Christ, it also did not comport with the Academy's limited scope.

And it can be something as simple as the snobbery the Academy has towards comedy.  Can you remember the last time a comedy was nominated for best picture or earned a win in a major category?  Comedies are a huge part of the cinematic landscape and they seem to be completely dismissed out of hand as unworthy of awards.

And then there is the problem of genre.  As the majority of the movie-going public votes with their dollars what movies they like the best, the Academy tends to staunchly ignore what is popular.  For example, Superhero films are one of the biggest moneymakers around now.  And yet none have been nominated for Best Picture.  This includes snubs against great films like The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Man of Steel, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Animation is also an incredibly popular film medium.  These stories not only employ incredible spectacle and imagination, but often they reach cathartic levels of emotion that many other "prestigious" films do not.  Yet only 3 animated movies have ever been nominated for Best Picture (Beauty and the Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3).

Action movies may not be "high drama" to some.  But can you deny that a great action film requires a strong, dynamic, visceral mastery of the visual art of directing.  And yet Michael Bay, John McTiernan, Tony Scott, and Martin Campbell have never been nominated in this field.

There are some times when they break out of form, this tends to be some kind of tokenism.  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is still the only fantasy film to win Best Picture.

 I do not mean to say that what is popular is necessarily good.  And I also want to make clear that adding nominations simply to bring in more diversity is not the answer.  Adding more diverse films simply to say you are more diverse misses the point.  Films should be nominated for their excellence not so that you can check off a box to make sure you have covered your diversity bases.

But this dogged refusal to recognize what is good because it is popular is detrimental to their brand.  The highest rated Oscar show in years was when Titanic was nominated.  The same thing applied to the year that TROTK won.  If you have no one to root for, then why bother watching.  As you know I see a lot of movies, and I've seen less than half of the movies nominated.

Could you imagine if Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens had been nominated in all major categories?  It would show diversity of genre (sci-fi), diversity of race (John Boyega and Oscar Isaac should have received nominations), diversity of directing (action instead of drama), etc.  And I guarantee it would be one of the highest rated Oscars with eyes glued to see their favorite movie win.

But that isn't going to happen.

By closing themselves off to their insular artistic and philosophical world-view, the Academy lacks the diversity to see some great art right in front of them.

And that is the real problem.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Film Review: 13 Hours - The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

It helps to understand how much Michael Bay loves the American flag.  Old Glory can be found waving proudly and prominently in most of his movies a symbol of freedom and honor and excellence.

And 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is a film whose final shot that Star-Spangled Banner flounder, tattered and tarnished in a pool of debris.

Knowing what the flag means to Bay, I cannot tell you how devastating that was to see.

13 Hours might be Bay's best film.  I have always maintained that he is one of the most gifted movie directors around.  His Achilles heel has always been him working with terrible scripts.  Not so the case with this movie.

The film tells the true story of the attack on our citizens in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012.  There has been some dispute regarding the account presented in the movie, but that does not take away from the power of what is on the screen.

After the fall of dictator Col. Gaddafi, his stockpiles of weapons have been ransacked.  The CIA set up a secret base to track the weapons and prevent them from getting into the hands of terrorists.  The CIA base is secured by a handful of ex-military private contractors.  Their leader is Rone (James Badge Dale), a no-nonsense man of action.  His fellow security is made of other rough-and-tumble soldiers: Tanto (Pablo Schreiber),  Boon (David Denman), Tig (Dominic Fumusa), and Oz (Max Martini).  Rone often bumps heads with Bob (David Costabile), the CIA chief of the secret base who constantly holds Rone and his men back.  The movie begins as Rone picks up Jack (John Krasinski) from the airport as he begins his contract as security.  Things begin to escalate when the American Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) comes to Benghazi around the anniversary of 9/11.  The first act does a great job of setting the board.  When the fuse is lit, the intensity doesn't really let up, even in the down moments.  This modern-day Alamo story is just as harrowing and heartbreaking.

Bay is finally allowed to exercise is talents on a worthy script.  The story is tightly wound so that each passing second carries meaning.  Some of the heavy action sequences are reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, holding the straight line through the chaos.  And as the story progresses and things get more dire, the individual personalities of the soldiers shine.  Our attachment to them makes the stakes all the more awful.  All of the soldiers are married, so we know that whole families will be devastated if even a single one of them is lost.

Bay also captures the wonderfully surreal world where people are sitting in their garages watching soccer a few yards away from mortar explosions.  The juxtaposition of the the violence and the insanity was reminiscent to me of Apocalypse Now.  Added to that was the complete paranoia.  After the fall of Gaddafi, Libya broke off into several rival factions.  The Americans in the movie have no idea if each armed group belongs to militia's allied or opposed to the US.  No one can be trusted and yet they need help or they are lost.

It would have been easy for this movie to devolve into a condemnation of all Libyans.  But the script wisely shows the full range of humanity in the Libyan people.  One man in particular, Amahl (Peyman Moaadi) is not a soldier, but a Libyan translator for the Americans.  He is thrust into this violent nightmare but he shows amazing courage, intelligence, and compassion.  I was so taken with Amahl, because he was someone trained in fighting but stepped up when the moment needed saving.

The preferences are fantastic.  Dale is great as the steady center and the rest of his men have great chemistry with each other for dramatic and comedic effect.  But the real star is Krasinski.  If you are only familiar with is comedic acting from The Office, then you are in for a major surprise.  The part is transformative.  The instensity of emotion that he hits was stunning and kept me glued to the screen.  You feel his bravery for his friends and his desperation live to see his family again.  But this film makes no promise of a happy ending and his fate and the fate of everyone else hangs by a thread throughout.

The biggest drawback would be that some of the supporting cast isn't given enough dimension.  Some characters feel one-note and uninteresting.  But I found this for the most part forgivable as I was drawn in by the rest of the action.

While this movie may be used as a political football, it is actually apolitical.  Something failed these Americans that night.  The movie doesn't point the finger, but you feel the rage as they are left hanging out the dry.  I kept shaking my head in disbelief that we could allow this to happen to our people.  Even if things did not happen exactly as it was shown, the fact that any of our bases would be abandoned like this is heart-breaking.

Thematically, this movie does what all great war movies do: it shows not only the external war, but the war within.  Early on one of Boon quote Joseph Campbell: "All the gods, all the hells, all the heavens are within you."  The soldiers there in Benghazi are not perfect.  They are flawed.  But they remind us that even in our flaws, we are called to heroism.  But no matter how heroic, war is still hell.
I was moved by what I saw on screen.  And it reminded me why brave men and women put themselves into harms way.  It reminded me what they are all fighting to protect:


4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Film Review: The Big Short

The Big Short is less a movie and more of an angry scream.

The movie is about the housing crisis bubble popping in 2008, where we follow the story of Michael Burry (Christian Bale) who discovers the coming financial doom and decides to short sell housing bonds.  I am no financial expert, but apparently its like taking insurance on a bond going bad.  If it crashes then you score big.  The film also follows Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) a righteously angry stock broker who is offered a chance to get in on the big short by Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling), a greedy Gordon Gecko type.  Whereas Burry figures out the bubble is going to pop because of the statistical markers, Baum and his team do the legwork and see the corruption and fraud at every level.  On top of that we follow Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) who also get in on the big short and use their connections to money-man turned hippie Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).

If that sounds confusing, it is.

To make matters worse, none of the stories merge.  It's like writer/director Adam McKay decided to make three separate movies at once.  The Baum story is the central one with other ones acting as needless complications.  In fact I would go so far as to say that after Burry's scenes in the first act, he adds nothing really to the story.  And I really wish they would have cut the Geller/Shipley part completely, because it felt like it was only there to give Brad Pitt something to do.  Flannery O'Connor wrote a book titled Everything That Rises Must Converge.  The problem with this movie is that none of the stories rise to anything special and so never converge.

McKay's take on the causes of the financial crisis are a bit one-sided and he leaves out a number of important contributing factors.  But that, in and of itself, does not hurt the narrative.  What does hurt it is his innability to take this complicated story and streamline it effectively.

There is an art in making the complex understandable.  This does not mean "dumbing down" the material.  But a good storyteller will be able to use strong, tangible analogies or clear explanations in order for his audience to grasp the mechanics.  Christopher Nolan is someone who has this ability.  McKay does not.  In fact, he has so little confidence in his own ability to let his story explain the complexity of the financial realities that he does these strange digressions where celebrities like Margot Robbie in a bathtub or Selena Gomez in a casino talk directly to the audience and give mini-tutorials on the topics at hand.

In fact, other characters break the fourth wall throughout the movie, which flies directly against McKay's entire directing style with the hand-held, cinema-verite look.  He wants you to feel like you are watching a documentary, but then he will completely undo the illusion by having his characters look you in the eye and admit what you are seeing is inaccurate.

As I've written in an earlier post, "Adam McKay is used to doing silly comedies, but The Big Short is a kind of serious tragedy.  But he has so little confidence in his ability to tell a serious story.  He needlessly lingers and bores the audience with his shots.  And he consistently does these strange inserts, as if cutting away will give greater emotional or story weight.  For example, he likes to show off his character's bookshelves as if to scream at you "These guys are SMART!"  

McKay wants to convince you that this is a serious movie and above all a SMART movie.  Never mind the fact that in an early scene that takes place in 2006, there are clearly advertisements for a television show that debuted in 2015 (I know this is an unfair nitpick, but I would be more forgiving if McKay was not constantly wanting me to notice the backgrounds).  But instead the movie feels like a first-year college freshmen come home for Christmas and using big words to impress his high school friends.

The performances are, for the most part, fine.  Bale's character is difficult to connect with, although that is what he tells us throughout the film.  Gosling's character lacks any depth, but he is long on charm and charisma.  Carell makes his Baum to mannered in voice and gesture, but when he has to do moments of intense emotionality, he really delivers.

And with all the recent talk of how women actress are not given their due, this movie will do nothing to help that.  Academy Award winners Marissa Tomei and Melissa Leo, as well as the fantastic Karen Gillan, were relegated to nothing more than glorified cameos.  I would be surprised if the entire screen time of all three actresses combined was more than five minutes.

Thematically, the movie is a passionate indignant of greed at every level of our society.  The more that Baum plumbs the depths of this disaster the more he sees senseless avarice seep into all of our financial and government institutions.  As a Catholic, I have to applaud the fact that McKay makes greed ugly and you can feel his palpable rage on the screen.  He does wrap this message in a movie with a lot of foul language and one unnecessarily gratuitous scene at a strip club.  But it is hard to argue with McKay's point that if given the opportunity, greedy men and women will ruin their own country in exchange for their own financial profit.

But this point would have been more effectively made if it was in a better movie.

2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 18, 2016

New Evangelizers Post: The Lord’s Prayer, Part 3 – Thy Kingdom Come

I have a new article up at  

Continuing our reflection of the “Our Father,” it is now time to turn our attention to the phrase “Thy Kingdom Come.”

Essentially there are two things we are praying for when we say these words.
First, we are praying for the Kingdom of God to be made manifest in our lives. As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in his book Jesus of Nazareth, the Kingdom of God is the reign of God on Earth. It is a time when God would be recognized as the true ruler of the world and we would abide by His laws and His ways.

Jesus centers much of His preaching on the Kingdom of God. When people ask Him about when the Kingdom will come, He says “the Kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:21) The reason that He says this is that the King has come: Jesus was born in the world. And because we have the presence of the King, we have the Kingdom.

When we pray for the Kingdom of God to come, we are praying that the presence of the King will become manifest in our own lives. Jesus says that “the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed,” (Luke 17:20) meaning that it is less an external, material thing. Instead it is an internal spiritual revolution. Imagine in the center of your soul is a throne. That which sits on the that throne is what rules your life. Has our soul been “conquered” by the King? Do we place our hearts and our minds at the service of the Sovereign?

You can read the entire article here.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Film Flash: Daddy's Home

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

Mostly mediocre and forgettable, but with a final five minutes that makes you leave happy.

2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday Best : Reaction to Golden Globes 2016 and Oscar Game

Last Sunday's Golden Globes were… long.  Here are some of my thoughts:

-I think I enjoyed Ricky Gervais' monologue a little too much.  Perhaps it was a bit too mean.  But there is also something funny about the Hollywood elite getting roasted as they laugh along.  I remember at the 2000 Oscars when Steve Martin made a joke about Russell Crowe and the camera caught Crowe's scowl.  None of that at the Globes.  I was worried that when he started talking about Spotlight that he was going to take a cheap shot at the Catholic Church, but it veered into a Polanski joke.
-Inside Out won best Animated Film, as it should
-Sylvester Stallone was recognized for his body of work by getting the award for Creed.  I haven't seen the film, but I felt happy for him.
-Ennio Morriconne's score, the best thing about The Hateful Eight, won.
-Rachel Bloom's win for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  The best part about some of these awards is to bring a spotlight to something good that may be overlooked.  The show is not great, but Bloom is fantastic and I'm glad she got recognition.
-Poe Dameron won an award.

-with the exception of Gervais, none of the other presenters made me laugh
-Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens wasn't nominated.
-The anti-Catholic depiction of St. Thomas More, Wolf Hall, won.
-How is The Martian a comedy?
-Tarantion's smug and factually inaccurate speech on behalf of Morriconne.

Overall, it was a show with few surprises, but few people to root for.

As I wrote last year, the Golden Globes are less and less of a predictor of Oscars than they used to be.

2001A Beautiful MindMoulin Rouge!A Beautiful Mind
2002The HoursChicagoChicago
2003The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the KingLost in TranslationThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2004The AviatorSidewaysMillion Dollar Baby
2005Brokeback MountainWalk the LineCrash
2006BabelDreamgirlsThe Departed
2007AtonementSweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet StreetNo Country for Old Men
2008Slumdog MillionaireVicky Cristina BarcelonaSlumdog Millionaire
2009AvatarThe HangoverThe Hurt Locker
2010The Social NetworkThe Kids Are All RightThe King's Speech
2011The DescendantsThe ArtistThe Artist
2012ArgoLes MiserablesArgo
201312 Years a SlaveAmerican Hustle12 Years a Slave
2014BoyhoodThe Grand Budapest Hotel

Now, let's move on to the Oscars:

As I wrote earlier this week, here are my initial thoughts on the nominations.

-Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens should have been nominated.
-Of the Best Picture nominees that I have seen, only Mad Max and The Martian should be there.
-Adam McKay, my choice for worst director of the year, got an Oscar nomination.
-Johnny Depp got snubbed for Black Mass
-Alicia Vikander should have been nominated for Ex Machina
-Here are the top 10 money-makers of 2015:  Star Wars, Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out, Furious 7, Minions, The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2, The Martian, Cinderella, Spectre.  Only 2 of them are nominated for Best Picture.  This means that this will be a low-rated Oscars because there are very few films to root for.

This is important, otherwise, the show would be even more boring.

I would like to invite any of you readers to participate in my annual Oscar Game.

For those who have played before, I have made important changes.
-I have re-adjusted the point values
-I have divided the awards into different categories
     -MAJOR AWARDS (the awards that the casual viewer cares about)
     -TECHNICAL AWARDS (awards for technical achievements)
     -MINOR AWARDS  (the awards that most people don't care and haven't seen the movies)

Just click this link.

The game goes like this:

OBJECT: Get the most points!

HOW TO PLAY:  Fill out a score sheet for each category with your choice (who you want to win) and your prediction (who you think WILL win).


-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor
-Best Actress
-Best Supporting Actor
-Best Supporting Actress
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Original Score
-Best Original Song
-Best Animate Feature

On the night of the Oscars, give yourself 1 point for each correct guess in MY PREDICTIONS.  If you get a prediction wrong, subtract 1 point.  Give yourself 1 point for each correct guess in MY CHOICE.  There is no penalty for incorrect guesses for MY CHOICE.

For example:

-MY CHOICE = • "Mad Max: Fury Road," George Miller
-MY PREDICTION = • "The Revenant," Alejandro G. Iñárritu

-MY CHOICE = Matt Damon in "The Martian"
-MY PREDICTION = Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant"

-MY CHOICE = • Jennifer Lawrence in "Joy"
-MY PREDICTION = • Jennifer Lawrence in "Joy"

If Alejandro G. Iñárritu wins Best Director, gain 1 point for a correct guess in MY PREDICTIONS, but no points for an incorrect MY CHOICE  (total points = 1)

If Matt Damon wins Best Actor, gain 1 point, for a correct MY CHOICE, but subtract 1 point for an incorrect MY PREDICTION (total points = 0)

If Jennifer Lawrence wins Best Actress, gain 1 points for correct MY CHOICE and 1 correct MY PREDICTION.  (total points =2)

You may NOT make a guess for a MY CHOICE in a category if you have not seen any of the films in the category.  You may, however, make a blind guess for the MY PREDICTION section even if you have not seen any of the nominees.

-Best Editing
-Best Cinematography
-Best Visual Effects
-Best Sound Editing
-Best Sound Mixing
-Best Makeup
-Best Costumes
-Best Production Design

For these, give yourself 1 point for each correct guess in MY PREDICTIONS.   Give yourself 1 points each correct guess in MY CHOICE.  There is no penalty for incorrect guesses for MY PREDICTIONS or MY CHOICE.

-Best Documentary Feature
-Best Documentary Short
-Best Animated Short
-Best Live Action Short
-Best Foreign Language Film

For these, give yourself 1 point for each correct guess in MY PREDICTIONS.   Since so few people have seen these, there is no MY CHOICE section.  There is no penalty for incorrect guesses for MY PREDICTIONS.


Fill out the below score sheet and send it to me.  I will be the designated score-keeper.  You may change any choice up until the broadcast begins.

The winner will receive bragging rights and recognition on this blog.

You can change your answers up until the broadcast.  Here is my ballot:

Catholic Skywalker
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road
"Mad Max: Fury Road," George Miller
"The Revenant," Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Matt Damon in "The Martian"
Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant"
Jennifer Lawrence in "Joy"
Brie Larson in "Room"
Christian Bale in "The Big Short"
Sylvester Stallone in "Creed"
Jennifer Jason Leigh in "The Hateful Eight"
Jennifer Jason Leigh in "The Hateful Eight"
"The Martian," screenplay by Drew Goddard
"The Big Short," screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay
"Inside Out," screenplay by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley; original story by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen
"Inside Out," screenplay by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley; original story by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen
"Mad Max: Fury Road," John Seale
"The Revenant," Emmanuel Lubezki
"Mad Max: Fury Road," Jenny Beavan
"Carol," Sandy Powell
"Mad Max: Fury Road," Margaret Sixel
"Mad Max: Fury Road," Margaret Sixel
"Mad Max: Fury Road," Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega and Damian Martin
"Mad Max: Fury Road," Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega and Damian Martin
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," John Williams
"The Hateful Eight," Ennio Morricone
"Writing's on the Wall" from "Spectre"
"Writing's on the Wall" from "Spectre"
"Mad Max: Fury Road," production design: Colin Gibson; set decoration: Lisa Thompson
"The Martian," production design: Arthur Max; set decoration: Celia Bobak
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," Matthew Wood and David Acord
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," Matthew Wood and David Acord
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," Andy Nelson, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," Andy Nelson, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan and Chris Corbould
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan and Chris Corbould
"Son of Saul," Hungary
"Inside Out," Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera
"Inside Out," Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera
"Amy," Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees
"A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness," Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
"World of Tomorrow," Don Hertzfeldt
"Ave Maria," Basil Khalil and Eric Dupont

When guessing for MY PREDICTION, my rule of thumb is to choose the most pretentious title.

So I invite all of you to join in the fun!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Film Flash: 13 Hours - The Secret Soliders of Benghazi

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

Harrowing tale of horror and heroism. Bay at his visceral, emotional best. Krasinski is devastating. 

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Remembering Alan Rickman

photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

I was shocked and saddened when I heard about the death of the great actor Alan Rickman.  It is the gift of actors that we connect with them so emotionally even having never met them, but it is the reason their parting affects us like losing friends.

Much of what is written below is from an earlier post as one of the 25 greatest actors of all time.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Bottle Shock
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Love Actually
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Galaxy Quest
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Closet Land
Die Hard

Alan Rickman entered the acting profession very late in life. And yet he has given some of the most memorable performances that the silver screen has seen.

Let's start with his first and, arguably, his most iconic role: Hans Gruber in Die Hard. I think people often forget what a surprise Die Hard was in its day. It was a big action film with the star of Moonlighting. What could have easily been a direct-to-HBO movie was instead an action masterpiece. And Rickman's villain is a huge part of that. Rickman conveys raw ruthlessness and intelligence. You have no trouble believing that he could kill a whole building full of innocent people but he there was a part of you that kind of pulled for him. When he gets the vault open, you get a little happy for him because he sees his plan come to fruition. He charms you by his skill and makes you want to be him a little bit.

But above all he showed great restraint and I will speak more about this later. First, it should be noted that he could turn up the volume on a performance in a way that few actors could. Watch his deliciously over-the-top turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He has none of Gruber's silent menace. He is all puffed-up bluster. The character is written in a very one-dimensional way, but Rickman makes his horrid personality so big and lively that cannot take your eyes off of him. He just chews the scenery up and it is fun.

And he can also bring the volume way down. I loved his performance as Steven Spurrier in Bottle Shock. A frustrated, small man, he seems well worn from living. There is a hang-dog melancholy to his character, but his absolute love of wine makes him endearing. He loves the beauty of wine and wants other people to see it too. He does all this while maintaining his deflated tone and stature.

He can disappear into roles like few others. His alternately sympathetic and sadistic interrogator in Closet Land is riveting.

He is also the only good thing in Kevin Smith's blasphemous movie Dogma. A bit more about this part.  He plays the Voice of God who is worn out from having to deliver bad news.  His monologue about how he had to reveal to Jesus His destiny to die for the sins of men is amazing.  It is beautiful and sad in a way that you feel the performance deserves to be in a better movie.

His Eeyore-voiced Marvin in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the galaxy provided the film's biggest laughs.   It should be noted how iconic his voice became.  That long English drawl that was filled with dark emotion could convey a character so skillfully.

He even brought both gravitas and goofiness to his frustrated TV-star in Galaxy Quest.    There are so few actors who can successfully do comedy and drama.

And now there is one fewer.

But his most amazing work was his role as Severus Snape from the Harry Potter movies.


On the surface, he appears to be only playing the “mean teacher” stereotype from so many school stories; he's a wizard-world Assistant Principal Vernon. Look at some of his deliveries in Sorcerer's Stone and Goblet of Fire and it could seem that he's simply rolling out lines dripping with venom and condescension

But the brilliance of casting Rickman was his restraint. Severus Snape is a character who must constantly be in control of every thought, word, and action. He cannot give away what he is really thinking or feeling. He needs to be inscrutable. It would be much simpler and easier to play the character as a blank slate. But when you watch what Rickman does, you feel his hand on the brakes, keeping the torrent of feeling from coming through. This leads to that signature Snape style of slowly speaking out each word so that every syllable lands a punch with either dramatic weight or comedic flair.  And only on the rarest of occasions do you see the weight of it behind the words.  The last line he ever delivers in the series is one word: "Always."  And that one word spoken by Rickman is more eloquent than pages and pages of heart-felt dialogue.

Rickman used every acting tool at his disposal and none of them were wasted. His change in voice inflection or subtle shift in eye contact did more to convey his character than what most actors could do. He seamlessly transitioned from comedy to drama, knowing the exact right tone to take with his characters and he disappeared into them in order to create something truly great on screen.

As long as there will be movies, we will remember the great Alan Rickman.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Movies of My Life: Updated 2015

I posted this earlier on this blog, but now I have an update for 2015:

I usually don't participate in Facebook lists (especially since I am not on Facebook), but this one intrigued me.

The challenge is to go through your life and list the best movie from each year of your life.  You can have a tie once per decade.

I found this idea challenging and interesting.  What I found the most interesting is how little interest I had in most of the movies that came out just before I was born, but I have a strong affection for movies from my early childhood.  I wonder if that is common to most people who do this?

Anyway, here is my list.  For the sake of anonymity, I have started my list with the decade of my birth rather than my birth year (maybe).

1970Julius CaesarHeston as Marc Antony is cinematic gold.
1971The Big BossBruce Lee's first starring feature.  A bit violent, but you can see the star power
1972The Godfather An unquestionable masterpiece that changed cinema.
1973American GraffitiThe influence of this movie is unnoticed but powerful, especially on television

Enter the DragonThe gold standard of modern martial arts movies
1974The Godfather Part IIDarker and a bit overly long, but the best movie of this year
1975JawsA nearly perfect film
1976RockyDespite being sequalized repeatedly, it is still raw and strong
1977Star Wars Episode IV: A New HopeMovie magic.
1978SupermanThe best superhero movie ever.
1979Time After TimeA tense and clever thriller. Malcolm McDowall's best performance
1980Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes BackEven better than the original Star Wars
1981Raiders of the Lost ArkFor the sword fight alone
1982ET: Extra-TerrestrialOne of the most transcendentally child-like films
1983Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the JediThe best of the Star Wars Saga
1984GhostbustersUnrepeatable comedy/action/adventure/horror
1985Back to the FutureExtreme laughs, thrills, and nostalgia all at the same time
1986AliensThe greatest action movie ever made.
1987The UntouchablesBrian DePalma's best film. Powerful.

PredatorManliest movie of the 1980's.
1988Young GunsIt has one of the strongest last lines of any film
1989Indiana Jones and the Last CrusadeThe greatest adventure movie off all time.
1990Presumed InnocentThe best legal drama of all time.
1991Dead AgainThe best thriller of all time.
1992Noises Off!One of the funniest films I have ever seen.
1993Schindler's ListEvery frame, every angle, every cut is genius.
1994The Shawshank RedemptionOverlooked when released, it has stood the test of time.
1995BraveheartEpic in scope, action, and human spirit
1996HamletVisually stunning and enveloping

SwingersA small, indie comedy with confidence and cool
1997TitanicDespite the haters, this is actually a fantastic, moving film.
1998Life is BeautifulA unique film that uplifts with laughs and tears
1999The Green MileSad and profound. It sticks with you long after its over
2000MementoOne of the best films ever made. Unlike anything else.
2001The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the RingA fantasy with some real gravitas
2002The Lord of the Rings: The Two TowersImproves upon the first
2003The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the KingOne of the most emotionally satisfying movies.
2004The Passion of the ChristThe greatest film ever made.
2005Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the SithThe best of the prequels.
2006Casino RoyaleThe bond reboot works on so many levels. Best of the Bond films.
2007JunoSimple premise with lots of heart. Sneaks into your heart like a child's laugh.

Lars and the Real GirlA strange movie that should be filthy but is richly innocent
2008The Dark KnightThe best Batman movie ever.
2009UpDevastating, hilarious, and uplifting.
2010InceptionA puzzle wrapped in an enigma
2011Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2The best of this franchise
2012Les MiserablesPure emotional power
2013Man of SteelVisually and thematically mature take on Superman
2014Captain America: The Winter SoldierTaught political thriller and action film

InterstellarAmazingly bold in concept and emotion
2015Star Wars Episode VII: The Force AwakensA worth successor to the series that is full for fun and heart.

A few observations on my own list (updates in bold):

-5 movies directed by Steven Spielberg
-4 movies directed by Christopher Nolan
-3 movies directed by Peter Jackson
-3 movies directed by George Lucas
-3 movies directed by Kenneth Brannagh
-only 4 movies are comedies (not to be confused with drama-dies)
-only 6 are tragedies (in the sense that they do not have a "happy ending")
-5 of the 7 Star Wars movies are represented
-4 of the movies are superhero films 
-2 movies based on Shakespeare plays
-2 movies not in English
-only 1 Western
-only 1 Musical
-3 movies involve time travel
-only 5 of the movies have a woman as the lead.
-7 Harrison Ford movies
-13 are sequels
-7 won the Oscar for best picture
-14 were nominated for best picture but did not win