Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sunday Best: High School Movies (for Teachers)

This list is a repost from four years ago.  But since I will begin teaching classes again soon now that summer is over, I thought it was worth another look.

  1. Remember the Titans

     Sports take up an important part of the lives of many high schoolers. For many of them it defines their social circles, their focus, and the way they look at life. Denzel Washington's Herman Boone is tough on his players both on and off the field. He understands that building up self-esteem is not his job. When his assistant coach builds up a player that Boone tore down, Boone warns him that by not letting that teen experience failure that he is being crippled for life. Sometimes teachers know that failure is the best teacher.

9.  Mean Girls

There are a lot of problems with Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey), but at least she tries to directly address the cattiness problem rampant among high school girls in a way I have never seen done in any other movie. She tries to show that this path is self destructive and pointless.

8.  Summer School

One of the things that impresses me about this movie is that it allows you to see how badly the teacher played by Marc Harmon does his job. He goes on a slow evolution from self-centeredness to devotion. But his dedication does not suddenly give him magical teaching powers. He succeeds as often as he fails, but he learns to accept the victory.

7.  The Karate Kid

While Miyagi is not a teacher in a high school, he is teaching a high school student. And his teaching method is top notch. I love the way that the movie captures the frustration between teacher and student, especially when students cannot understand why they need educating. I've noticed that when students don't like an activity, they ask “What's the point of this?” But even if an explanation is given, they still will not understand. They have to be shown. So much of what happens in high school is learning not only facts, but skills and habits that will help you in life. Learning how to speak properly, write properly, dress properly, be respectful, etc. are things that will help in later professional life. Miyagi demonstrates that with his “wax on, wax off” style of teacher that builds up the muscles of habit to strengthen the person to the task at hand.

6.  Waiting For Superman

While the focus of this documentary was primarily on grade schools, it did point out a few issues regarding high school education, the most important of which was that competition between schools will result in getting the best quality teachers.

5.  Mr. Holland's Opus

The movie is a bit overly sentimental, but I think that it touches on the secret wish that all teachers have to make a difference. We have students for a little while and then they move on. And rarely do we see where life takes them. As the years pass, you begin to wonder what kind of impact you've had and if you've made any real positive difference. Mr. Holland's Opus is a reminder that helping out one soul is better than all the fame and fortune in the world.

4.  Dead Poets Society

The goal of a great teacher is not just to get students to know more but the think more. Robin William's John Keating uses all of tools of entertainment at his disposal to do just this. I have heard some critiques that this movie reduces teaching to simple performance. And to be sure there are some teachers who only entertain without educating. But I've always maintained that keeping a class' attention is half the battle. If I can keep my students from falling asleep, I've done something right. Jokes, impressions, games, etc are all a means to an end. And Dead Poets Society shows what happens, for good or for ill, when teens start becoming men and thinking for themselves.

3.  Lean On Me

Morgan Freeman's performance is outstanding as “Crazy” Joe Clark, the embattled principal of East Side High. He embodies the fatherly qualities of stern disciplinarian and tireless protector. He makes several mistakes along the way, but he is undeterred in making sure his students have a chance to succeed. This movie gets that safety and discipline are a pre-requisite in the classroom if any learning is going to happen. A student once asked me why I am so strict with things like the dress code or tardiness. My honest answer is that the more discipline there is in class, the easier it will be for the students to learn. As I pointed out earlier, many don't see this, but I do. Lean on Me shows taking discipline out of the schools will destroy them. Bringing it back is an act of love.

2.  The Emperor's Club

“What's the good of what you're teaching?” is a question posed to Kevin Kline's Mr. Hundert, the teacher of Classics in The Emperor's Club. The question is trying to glean what are the pragmatic benefits of studying the ancient Greeks and Romans. And while Hundert has a good practical answer, he points to the larger reason: it shapes a child's character. Teaching is not just about facts and figures.  It is about helping mold the personality of someone. So much of our personalities solidify during the years of high school and college. A great teacher can influence that. The movie also reminds us that a teacher is not defined by a single success or a solitary failure, but by a whole lifetime of work.

1.  Stand and Deliver

This utterly unsentimental movie is my favorite movie on teaching. Edward James Olmos gives one of his best performances as Jaime Escalante, a teacher who decides to hold calculus classes in an underprivileged urban school. Like Joe Clark, Escalante is tough. He says, “There will be no free rides, no excuses. You already have two strikes against you: your name and your complexion. Because of those two strikes, there are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do. Math is the great equalizer... When you go for a job, the person giving you that job will not want to hear your problems; ergo, neither do I. You're going to work harder here than you've ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is 'ganas.' 'Desire.'”

But toughness is not enough to be a good teacher. Escalante gives all of his time and talent to his students. At a faculty meeting, despite his crowded schedule, he says “I can do more.” A teacher needs to be present to his students to help them. And it costs Escalante much but he never complains. He knows that by raising the bar high, the students will meet and surpass his expectations. He understands that teaching is an act of faith. You have to believe that your students can excel And you have to believe that you can teach them to do it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Feast of the Assumption - 2017

(repost from 2012)

The Blessed Mother has been very important to my life, especially after my conversion.  I know I am not devoted as I should be, but I try to commit myself every day to her Immaculate Heart.  

But on a day like today I cannot help but be happy for her.  She lived a life free of sin and no gets a sneak preview of the Resurrection.  No wonder this day is a holy day of obligation!

I wish that I had words to honor her properly.  So instead I want to share with you some thoughts from Pope Benedict XVI via  

The story says that he "set aside his prepared text for much of his homily."  George Weigel once said that Joseph Ratzinger was the only person he knew who spoke in paragraphs.  His mind and his words are so well ordered that even spontaneously they flow with eloquence.  

Below is a portion of the text of the article

On Assumption, pope says Mary is with God, listening to prayers

By Catholic News Service

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (CNS) -- Assumed into heaven, Mary is with God and is ready to listen and respond to cries for help, Pope Benedict XVI said.

Joining God in heaven, Mary "does not draw away from us, does not go to an unknown galaxy," but becomes "even closer to each one of us," the pope said Aug. 15 during his homily at Mass for the feast of the Assumption.


Mary's assumption, he said, gives believers "a sure hope: God expects us, he awaits us. We are not moving toward a void."

"And going to that other world, we will find the goodness of the Mother (Mary), we will find our loved ones, we will find eternal love," the pope said.

Pope Benedict... said that Mary's closeness to God ensures her closeness to all God's creatures.

"Mary, totally united with God, has a heart that is so big that all creation can find a place there," a fact illustrated by the votive offerings people around the world leave at Marian shrines and statues when their prayers are answered, he said.

Mary's presence in heaven shows that "in God there is room for man," he said.

At the same time, he said, she demonstrates that "in man there is room for God," and when God is present within individuals and they allow God to influence the way they act in the world, the world becomes a better place.

Many people today speak of their hopes for a better world, he said. 

"If and when this better world will come, we do not know. But one thing is certain: A world that moves away from God will not become better, but worse. Only the presence of God can guarantee a better world."

The Christian hope for a better world and for finding a place with God for eternity "is not just yearning for heaven," but allowing one's desire for God to "make us untiring pilgrims, increasing our courage and strength of faith, which is at the same time the courage and strength of love," he said.

Hail Holy Queen,
Mother of Mercy
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To thee do we send up our sighs, mornings, and weepings
in this valley of tears.
Turn then, Most Gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy
towards us.
And after this our exile, show unto us the Blessed Fruit
of Thy Womb, Jesus
O Clement
O Loving
O Sweet Virgin Mary

Monday, August 14, 2017

New Evangelizers Post: Crafty Virtue

I have a new article up at  
One of Jesus’ most challenging parables is the one about the Dishonest Steward in Luke 16. In that story, a wealthy man is about to dismiss one of his stewards for being dishonest. The steward, wanting to ingratiate himself with those in debt to his master, reduces their debt to the master. The parable ends with the master commending the dishonest steward for acting prudently.

It is important to enter into its context, where the dishonesty of the steward was in the beginning of the story, not the end. Many misunderstand the parable, thinking that the master is rewarding the steward for dishonestly cheating him out of the debts owed. Instead, the steward is being dismissed at the beginning of the story for his graft in overcharging the debtors, something that would have been understood as common to Jesus’ original audience. For example, if Jesus told a similar parable today and began it by describing a dishonest banker, we would naturally assume that his dishonesty was in stealing from the bank. We would not need to be told this. In the original parable, the steward forgoes his cheating profits and has the debtors pay the actual amount they owe.

Because of this, the master commends the steward for being practical.

There are several lessons that one can draw from this story. For this article, I would like to focus only on one idea:

Crafty Virtue.

You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Best: Top 5 Stephen King Films

With The Dark Tower premiering last week and It coming out soon, I thought it would be a good time to take stock of the best movies that have been adapted from Stephen King stories.

This list will only include feature films and not those found only on television.  This is a shame since there is a great deal to admire about the TV versions of The Stand, The Shining, and It.

The list is based on how good the movies are and not on how well they adapt Stephen King's actual story.  Some of the movies on this list are very unfaithful adaptations.  And yet as films in and of themselves, they are excellent.  So for the King fan, these movies may be considered sub par.  But I am judging the movies per se.

5.  Misery

This movie is ultimately a battle of minds that required to outstanding performances.  Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her portrayal of the psychotic Annie.  But James Caan is often overlooked for his amazing performance as a man so completely physically helpless against this monster so that he has to use all of his wits just to stay alive a little longer for the hope of escape.  Most of the action is contained in a very small space and yet director Rob Reiner makes the film incredibly watchable.

4.  The Shining
The Shining poster.jpg
A horror masterpiece.  And this is coming from someone who does not enjoy horror films.  The movie works its creeping fingers of terror around your throat and then squeezes.  The horrible sense of unease never leaves the movie from the very first shot and the descent into madness feels ineveitable.  It is like being trapped in an oddly beautiful nightmare.

3.  Stand By Me
Stand By Me 1986 American Theatrical Release Poster.jpg
This is a movie that perfectly captures that odd time when you fall from the innocence of childhood but still are not old enough to be taken at all seriously in any adult way.  The four friends in this movie have relationships that feel real and identifiable to any boy who grew up with some close buddies.  Even as they revel in gross out vomit stories, there is a child-like naiveté to it that we can feel slipping away by the end of the film.  I love how when the boys part at the end, they fade away like ghosts, reminding us that even though we may not have them in our lives anymore, the events we shared with them will haunt our lives.

And the soundtrack is outstanding.

2.  The Green Mile
The words Tom Hanks, a prison guard looking to the distance, below the words The Green Mile, in the middle of the words, a small silhouette of a big man and small man walking towards a light.
Tom Hanks gives one of his best performances in this movie as he comes to discover that his death row inmate may be a miracle from Heaven.  The late Michael Clarke Duncan got an Oscar nomination for his role and it is well deserved.  There is something about his portrayal as John Coffey that has an aura of mystery and even danger.  His innocence could come off as mere stupidity.  But his final monologue where talks about people "being ugly to each other" always gets me.  And I have never heard a more pro-life sentence in a movie than: "On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I going say?

1.  The Shawshank Redemption

Probably to no one's surprise, this movie is at the top of the list.  It is on the top films on most people's lists.  Director Frank Darabont is a poet with the camera and the movie works on every level: visually, thematically, emotionally, dramatically...   From the opening scene to the final shot, everything about this movie is great.  It is optimistic and hopeful, but it not a naiive hope.  Instead this movie looks the nastiness of the world right in the eye and it dares you to give in and then it dares you to believe that despite all of that, there can be a better tomorrow, that for all of us there can be a redemption.

Monday, August 7, 2017

New Evangelizers Post: Reflecting on Jesus’ Grandparents

I have a new article up at  
A few days ago we celebrated the feast of Sts. Anne and Joachim, the parents of the Virgin Mary. Very little can be said about them with certainty. Neither of Mary’s parents are named in the Scriptures. We find these names in The Gospel of James, a book that is not one of the inspired books of the Bible.
Is the information found in this book and found in the human tradition reliable?

Who can say.

Then what do we know with certainty?

We know that they lived in Nazareth with their daughter Mary. We know that their union produced the Immaculate Conception. And we know that their grandchild is the Incarnate Word.

Like St. Joseph, Anne and Joachim were born into the same fallen humanity that we all possess. I imagine that when they welcomed their daughter into the world they wanted to give her a better life than they had. I spoke recently with some friends of mine who have children and they said that they always wonder what will be the thing they do that will start a chain reaction of unalterably forming their child’s character. They hope that they say and do things that will make them holier and more moral. But an ill-tempered word or disinterested slight is something that they fear may be the source of a lifetime of hurt.

I don’t know that Anne and Joachim were any different. Sometimes I think we imagine Jesus and Mary were born with fully formed personalities. And to be sure in His Divinity, Christ had a perfect and unchanging Personhood. But in their humanity, both Jesus and Mary had to learn the way all of us learn.

Human beings are interesting creatures, unique in this world. Think of how many species have young that walk right from birth or engage in self-reliant behavior immediately with no parenting. Human children require years and years of parenting because we are so different. That is because we, unlike all other earthly creatures, are rational animals. We find the fulfillment of our natural potential not only in physical perfection (as beasts do), but in mental perfection as well. This requires a great deal of education. Here, I do not mean anything as formal as school, though that can be a part of it. The most important education of all is the one that teaches them how to live rightly. We call this moral education. And this is something that is not simply taught in platitudes and lessons. It is something that usually has its best chance of being taught through example and modeling.

You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sunday Best: Top 25 Superhero Movies of All Time #8 - Iron Man

There is little doubt that this is the movie that changed Hollywood franchises.

The original X-Men movie renewed interest in comic book films after the disastrous Batman and Robin.  But Iron Man changed everything.

In retrospect, you can see the brilliance of many of the choices, but so much of what was done was a gamble.

I have always maintained that at least half of the success of the entire Marvel Cinematic Marvel Universe is due to Robert Downey Jr.  Without him, I do not think you would have the MCU.

But it is important to remember what a risk he was to cast.  The studios always want to cast younger actors so that as the years go on, the heroes don't age out too quickly.  This can often have disastrous effects like Kate Boseworth as Lois Lane.  Instead, director Jon Favreau wanted Downey Jr. who was already in his 40's.  On top of that, it is important to remember that Downey Jr. had not been doing mostly supporting roles at this time or leads in smaller productions.  And don't forget about his very public issues with drugs and prison.

In addition to this, Iron Man was not one of the A-List Marvel heroes.  Director Favreau had only directed three movies up until this point, two of which had only barely made back its budget.  The studio was also opening the movie only a week an a half before the hugely anticipated (though eventually derided) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Despite all of that, Iron Man rose to the top.

The movie does something that I always advise filmmakers with unlikeable leads to do: make your leads charming.  Tony is not a likable person when the movie starts.  He is a lothario who is thoughtless, greedy, and arrogant.  If these were his only qualities, audiences would check out of the story immediately.  But Downey Jr. makes you like him despite his flaws.  The opening scene is so brilliant because it does two things:  first it makes you attach to Tony because he is the cool/funny guy who is being cool and funny with us "normal" people.  Second, he is immeadelty put into mortal danger so we feel for his safety right away.

The entire first act of Iron Man is fantastic.  Downey Jr.'s chemistry with Yinsen (Shaun Toub) is the heart of the movie.  Toub's understated and noble performance works to break through the snarky and sarcastic exterior of Tony.  Not to enter into the realm of politics, but the movie came out towards the end of the George W. Bush administration when terrorism was a primary focus.  By setting Tony's capture in the mountains of Afghanistan by radical Islamists, it struck a collective chord with a lot of people and gave us a superhero that felt like he was the enemy to our enemies.  It was the movie equivalent of the cover of Captain America #1 where he punches Hitler.

The sequence of the escape is also fantastic, as we see our hero turn the tables on the villains and use his genius to overcome them and be the architect for his own escape along with Yinsen.  After watching Tony suffer so much at the hands of these terrorists, it is a wonderfully cathartic release to see him exact justice.

But the goodbye to Yinsen always gets me.  Again, Downey Jr. needs so much credit here.  He can crank up the charm to 11, but he can also bring the proper emotion.  Watch when he says to him, "Thank you for saving me."  You can see how he means more than just saving his life.  Yinsen saved his soul.  It is a fantastic moment, not overdone or underdone.  It is a moment of man who feels overwhelming gratitude and genuine emotion but doesn't really know how to do it anymore.  His feelings are almost alien to him as he confesses his thanks.    So when Yinsen says, "Don't wast your life," you can see how it propels the rest of the movie.

It is true that the second two acts do not match the level of the first act, but there is still much to admire.  The development of the armor is fascinating to watch.  This is not an easy feat because these sequences are essentially a man in a workshop building stuff.  But Favreau makes each step of the journey fascinating to watch.  And his first flight is still a real joy to watch, you feel Tony's exhilaration as he shouts with joy.

Underneath this is a story of redemption.  Tony has been given a second chance to make his life count.  The movie is about the slow awakening of his soul.  The story wisely gives his character room to grow over the course of several films, but his first strides feel significant.  It is wonderful to watch his first "metanoia," which is a Greek word for "complete change of heart."  This happens thematically and symbolically with his Arc Light in his chest.  His past sins are killing him, but his current heroism is saving him.  But if he ever stops being a hero, he will slide back into his deadly sin.

And his first real fight in the new armor is great to watch.  Again, Iron Man is not fighting a super-villain here, but Islamist (alebiet in this case fictional) terrorists.  You get the sense of a hero touching, tangentially, the evils of the world.

The movie's biggest detriment is in its villain.  Jeff Bridges' Obediah Stane is too simple and obviously evil.  That isn't to say that Bridges doesn't do the best he has with that material.  Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts has great chemistry with Downey Jr.  Even Terrance Howard does a decent job as James Rhodes.

Also I think people forget how bold the ending is with Tony eschewing the necessity of a secret identity.  While that is standard for most Marvel movies now, it was a brand new idea.

But above all of this, Iron Man is a fun movie.  Never underestimate the power of fun entertainment.  That doesn't undercut any of the drama involved, but most people finish Iron Man and they feel charmed and exhilarated.  This movie permanently planted Robert Downey Jr. into their affections, and by association Iron Man and the entire MCU.

Nearly ten years later, Iron Man is still one of the best in the genre and deserves its place as the eight greatest superhero film of al time.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Who Knows the Savior

So I was at a Comic Con today and got a chance to meet David Tennant.  In honor of that event, I decided to dress up like the 10th Doctor.  My wife and I waited in line for hours until we got a chance to briefly meet him face to face and then get our picture taken.

After that, we walked around the convention center looking at all of what was there.  At one place they had a life-size TARDIS and a man dressed as the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker).  He never broke character and asked if I wanted to get a picture with him or just me and the TARDIS.  I said both and we took both pictures.

Right before I left, he said (again, never breaking character as the Fourth Doctor), "What is this medal you have around your neck?"

I grabbed my Miraculous Medal and explained what it was and showed him that I was wearing a crucifix I received when I was seventeen.

The Fourth Doctor said, "Oh!  You know, I met Jesus once.  He did something I could never do: save the world!"


Comic Con.


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Film Review: Dunkirk

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection 
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

If Christopher Nolan does not get an Oscar nomination for Best Director, nothing will.

Dunkirk is a marvel of cinematic storytelling once again proving that Nolan is one of the best artists behind the camera working today.

The movie once again uses Nolan's signature obsession with multiple and overlapping timelines to tell the story of the retreat at Dunkirk.  The Allied forces were pushed back by the Nazis all the way to the coast of France at Dunkirk.  Nearly 400, 000 men were stranded on the beaches there.  Assembling on the beach left them open to the German air force.  The large military destroyer ships were prone to attack from the air and from u-boats under the sea.  The British military held back much of its navy and air force in preparation of the inevitable Battle of Britain.  As a result, civilian ships were called in to help with the evacuation.

In this movie, Nolan interweaves three convergent storylines.

1.  Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is a young British soldier who falls in with another soldier (Damien Bonnard) as they make several attempts to finagle their way onto any ship taking them off the beach.  During this time the encounter Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy) and come to understand how desperate their situation is.  Their story plays out over several days at Dunkirk.

2.  Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is a British citizen who answers the call for rescue boats.  He sets off to Dunkirk with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan).  Along the way they pick up a drifting shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) who is shell shocked and does not want to return to Dunkirk.  Their story takes place over one day.

3.  Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Loweden) are RAF pilots who, with almost no other support, must fend off the German Air force threatening escaping Dunkirk.  This story takes place over the course of a single hour.

If that sounds confusion, don't worry it really isn't.  Nolan understands that the human mind longs for complexity in its stories but he also understands that the human mind doesn't want to be too frustrated.  He messes with the converging timelines primarily to create suspense and tension.

This might be Nolan's best work in terms of purely visual storytelling.  Hardly a word is said throughout most of the movie.  In fact, it wouldn't be too far off to see Dunkirk as a silent movie.  Or at the very least it carries with it the principle of telling the story with the bare minimum of dialog.  In Tommy's sequence, I don't think he or his friend say a single line for the first forty minutes.  Instead, Nolan wants you to follow them with your eyes.  Nolan is one of the few directors working at his level who trusts his audience to keep up with him.  Rather than have Tommy and his friend have a long conversation about how to sneak onto a boat, he shows us how come across an injured man on a stretcher who has been abandoned on the beach and takes it from there.

The colors of the film help set its tone.  The soldiers languish in a washed-out blue-gray purgatory of despair.  They are exposed and helpless with only the strange sea foam for cover.

And the threat is always there and impending.  Nolan takes a cue from Jaws and barely ever shows us the invading force, but they are there all the time.  We can hear them always surrounding.  While I said this movie had a silent film aesthetic, it use of sound is masterful.  Not only is the score tense and powerful, but the shock and violence of the sound effects makes us feel the oppression of that unseen fear.  And his use of the watch ticking is the most effective I've heard in a film.

Nolan traps us into his characters' perspectives in such an effective way.  One of the things that he did better than in any movie I've seen is capture the claustrophobia of air battles.  Often in films we get to stand outside and watch the exciting movements of the planes throughout the three-dimensional space in which they fight.  But Nolan forces you into that cockpit where your field of vision is so limited and you don't know if you are alone in the sky or if an enemy is closing in.

This movie does have a drawback and it is not insignificant: it lacks heart.  What I mean by this is that there is an intentional absence of all things resembling sentiment from the film.  As we saw in Interstellar, Nolan is perfectly capable of tugging at the heartstrings.  But for Dunkirk, he assiduously avoids them.  It would be wrong to say that the movie is unemotional or callous.  The emotions of fear, sadness, and desperation are powerful and intense.  Many of the soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk were strangers who fall in together for an intense experience.  But because of that, they never really form strong emotional bonds to each other.  The same is true of the audience.  You care about many of the characters on a human level, but not a personal level.  I honestly could not tell you the names of most of the main characters from memory.  And much of the dialogue was difficult to hear.

I think that Nolan wants this distance because he wants to remove these men from the audience's judgment.  Some of them do some horrible things through the course of the movie.  But Nolan never casts judgment on their horrible actions.  Instead, he simply shows you the horror they endure and reminds you that war is hell.

And that isn't to say that he doesn't show great heroism at the same time.  Rylance's Dawson has such an understated nobility that it is hard to define.  Dawson is tenacious and daring and pushes his crew because "We might be able to help!"  He is an ordinary man with extraordinary character.  Farrier also has to often put his courage to the sticking place.  And the last shot of Bolton in the movie stands as an emblem of iconic valor.  In fact, the very last shot of the film feels like a challenge to the audience to match up to the heroism displayed at Dunkirk.

The problem is that Nolan is becoming more and more like his favorite director: Stanley Kubrick.  Kubrick was a man who could create some of the most iconic images every made in cinema.  But his films had a coldness that borders on pathological.  Nolan seems to be following in his stylistic footsteps, which I think will ultimately hurt his storytelling.

All of the performances are great.  Newcomer Whitehead has to carry so much of the movie without saying anything, so all of his subtle emotion must be constantly present.  Hardy, as he did when he played Bane in Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, must do most of his work with only his voice and his eyes.  And Rylance proves once again why he earned his Oscar a few years back.  There is absolutely nothing showy about his performance.  And yet it is so charismatic that he lingers with you long after the movie ends.  He refuses to chew scenery.  But when he says lines like "We have a job to do," it does it in a way that is so plain and firm that you cannot help but agree.

Dunkirk is a great film told by a master of the visual form.  But if he had just given his film a bit more heart, it could have been one of the greatest.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 31, 2017

Film Review: Atomic Blonde

Sexuality/Nudity Objectionable 
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Objectionable

Atomic Blonde is a movie that should be all kinds of awesome.

-director from John Wick: check.
-charismatic action lead: check.
-nifty 80's soundtrack: check.
-high-octane action throughout: check.

But when all is said and done, the whole movie feels like a waste.

Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a member of the British Secret Service who is being sent to East Berlin right before the fall of the wall.  A Stasi informant known as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) has a list of undercover agents that could put many lives at risk.  Her main contact is fellow Secret Service agent David Percival (James McAvoy) who has gone deep into the Berlin black market.  Along the way she encounters French spy Delpine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) with whom she begins a love affair.  Lorraine races against the clock to find the information as she dangerously jumps across both sides of the wall several times to secure the information and find a traitorous mole code-named "Satchel."

All of that is well and good and should be fantastic fodder for the movie.  But there are several problems right off the bat.

I am not a fan of gratuitous nudity and there is plenty in the film from the beginning.  Theron first appears on screen emerging from an ice bath and then walks around nude.  I have no problem with a film capturing the physical beauty of a person.  Daniel Craig has that famous shot of him coming out of the water in Casino Royale.  But when you cross over into nudity, it goes from appreciation of physical beauty to objectification.  And there is a good deal of R-Rated female-female sex depicted which acts as a complete distraction.  I think the point was to make Broughton as sexually adventurous as 007, but nothing in Bond has ever been this graphic.

Also, the very first moment you meet McAvoy's Percival, he utters a completely vulgar and baffling blasphemy of the Virgin Mary.  I found myself lingering on that moment long after it had passed and it kept me from engaging in parts of the movie.  In fact, his entire character is a problem for the entire film.  I'm not sure if my distaste for McAvoy is coloring my dislike of his performance, so I want to be fair.  He has a great deal of energy, but he comes off as so off-putting that I could never engage with him.

Narratively, the movie is strangely ineffective.  I enjoy complicated and complex plots, but I couldn't follow a good deal of what was happening or rather why it was happening.  A number of the villains make such a feeble impression that I had trouble remembering who they were.  Also the movie does a lot to remove a lot of the important tension.  Most of the movie is told by Broughton in flashback so we have no fear that she will survive her several deadly encounters.  The movie builds towards the fall of the Berlin Wall as some kind of ticking clock, but all it does is make us feel that this conflict is ultimately pointless.  Also the story reveals WAY too early that someone is a traitor.  Because of that we don't get to really revel in the paranoia of potential betrayal.  And when the betrayal does happen it comes with so little shock that you come to realize that you had been watching this movie impatiently waiting to reveal something to you that you already knew.  This makes the overall affair boring and tedious.

On a side note, Boutella's Delphine may be the stupidest spy ever on film.  When she realizes that her life is in mortal danger does she flee Berlin?  No.  She CALLS UP the person who is her biggest threat and yells at him for NO REASON.  After that, does she run away?  Set a trap?  No.  She puts on a pair of noise cancelling head phones and wanders around her unsecure apartment in her underwear.  The sequence is so pointless that it defied comprehension.

Theron is actually fairly good in her role.  While her character's cold exterior never thaws enough for us to see the character underneath, her performance is on par with Craig's first Bond film.

The action sequences are also excellent.  There is a much-talked-about sequence in an abandoned building that seems like one continuous take.  It is brutal and raw and the absolute best part of the movie.  It is a scene that deserves to be in a better movie.  Director David Leitch knows how to make these parts of the movie watchable.  But because we lack a strong connection to the story I actually wish they were shorter.  And he throws in some funky camera moves that seem to serve no other purpose than to be funky.

The film also makes decent use of the music and styles of the era, but never to their full effect.  Although the film wisely uses Queen's and Bowie's "Under Pressure" in the final sequence which hits the end with just the right sense of cool and awesome.

On a last note, the movie has a terrible title.  There is nothing "atomic" related to the story and the focus on her being "blonde" also has nothing to do with the story.  I know that its supposed to be a clever play on the phrase "atomic bomb" but it really isn't clever.  In a movie that tries to insist on the strength and independence of its main heroine, the title is strangely objectifying.  I couldn't imagine that one of the potential titles for John Wick was Nuclear Brunette.

But a bad title is the least of the problems found in Atomic Blonde.  With a movie like this, you should leave the theater feeling exhilarated, not bored.

1 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Film Flash: The Emoji Movie

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

👎 🚮 ✌️😱4️⃣👦👧 🚫👀☮️🅾️💩🎥 ⭐️⭐️/⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Sunday Best: Top 25 Superhero Movies of All Time #9 - The Incredibles

This is the greatest Fantastic Four movie ever made.

And make no mistake: this is the Fantastic Four.  Even the most casual observer of Marvel's first family can see the parallels.  In power you have the stretchy one, the invisible one, and the strong guy.  They substitute out speed for fire, but both imply impulsivity.  And the personality dynamic is on display as well: there is the father-figure, the mother-figure, the one who tries to hide, and the hot-head.  Do I side-by-side comparison of the uniforms (NO CAPES!) and it is even more apparent.
The Incredibles are the Fantastic Four.   But it goes even further than that:

The Incredibles are a BETTER Fantastic Four.

First of all, writer-director Brad Bird needs to be given an great deal of credit for this film: it is gorgeous in that visually stunning PIXAR way.  There is a lot of mediocre computer animation out there, but The Incredibles draws you in so well.  The visual design with its retro-'50's aesthetic evokes a sense of innocent nostalgia while still feeling modern.  Watch Bird's use of color and shadow, especially with the color red, which creates some intense mood and emotion.

But lots of superhero films have a strong spectacle.  What sets this apart is how The Incredibles taps into something much deeper while still maintaining it as a fun adventure.  We watch the adventures of a family of "Specials."  Chesterton said  The Iliad is only great because all life is a battle, The Odyssey because all life is a journey, The Book of Job because all life is a riddle.”

The Incredibles is great because all families are Specials.

Inside every family there is that primal thing in us see everyone in it like superheroes.  Dad is Mr. Incredible: even if he weighed down by age and weight, there is a Goliath lurking inside of him waiting to fight for you.  Mom is Elastagirl: she will twist and stretch herself beyond human comprehension to take care of you and protect you.  One child is Violet: shy and retreating and uncomfortable out in the world but growing increasingly alienated at home.  One child is Dash: emotional and impetuous, burning with the desire to shine.

This is one of the most pro-marriage, pro-family films made in last few years.  Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl have their problems, chief among which is that Mr. Incredible is keeping secrets.  The movie shows how secrets in a marriage eat away at its foundation.  But the love they have for each other brings them back together and gives their children a solid foundation.

It does a great job of showing that horrible transition parents must go through where they have to let go of protecting their kids and let them put themselves into harms way.  I am always moved by the scene in the cave where Elastigirl tells Violet and Dash that they are both going to be in horrible danger and that they are going to have to look out for each other.  Watching Dash's smile fade always breaks my heart because there is a small loss of innocence at that point, which is something that parents have to witness as the years go on.

But ultimately its about facing the problems of the world together as a family.  Mom and Dad will always be out there fighting for their kids, but the kids have to learn to step up and fight their battles too.  They look out for each other and have each other's backs.

The villain also is very prescient as a model of modern internet troll society.  I am amazed how much of today's social media outrage is fueled by envy.  Syndrome is someone who wants to be like Mr. Incredible but is consumed with jealousy that he is not.  Rather than work hard to raise himself up, all he can do is tear everyone else down.  He says he wants to sell normal people his Syndrome technology so that everyone will feel special but that "no one will be."  Like Lex Luthor in Batman v. Superman, Syndrome cannot stand to see anyone have advantages in life that he does not have.  The Incredibles reminds us that envy can destroy the soul and lead to utter destruction (especially if you wear a CAPE).

Even with all of the rich thematic elements, The Incredibles is still a great deal of fun.  Michael Giacchino's score reminds me like a comic book version of James Bond.  I absolutely love the moment Dash finds himself running on the water and is so tickled by it that he lets out a child-like chuckle that is absolutely perfect.

Finally, The Incredibles has the most quotable moment in any PIXAR film:

As of this writing they are developing The Incredibles 2, set to be released 14 years after the original.  If it is even half as good as this movie, it will have been worth the wait.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Film Review: War for the Planet Apes

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection 
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

War for the Planet of the Apes is a very good film that is engaging and exciting.  But it isn't really a war movie.

Director Matt Reeves has created an epic trilogy for which he should be very proud.  He has taken us on the journey of Caesar (the amazing Andy Serkis) from his beginning the ape revolution in Rise of the Planet of the Apes through his troubled leadership of his tribe in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes through to this finale in War for the Planet of the Apes.

The story begins five years after Dawn and fifteen after Rise.  A cult-like human Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who is leading his outpost of humans against Caesar's apes in the Redwoods.  After a devestating surgical strike on his home, Caesar pursues revenge accompanied by fellow chimp Rocket (Terry Notary), gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and his wise counselor orangutang Maurice (Karin Konoval).  Along their perilous journey they encounter two more characters that shed light on the world-wide impact of the simian flu virus.  The first is Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a chimp from a zoo who became intelligent as the virus spread.  The other is Nova (Amiah Miller), a mute child who appears to have mentally deteriorated into simplicity because of the mutation of the disease.  Together, these six form a unlikely bond as they forge ahead to the Colonel's base where Caesar finds more than he bargained for.  I do not want to go any further with the plot so as to not spoil some of the twists.

Reeves weaves a tale that is intricate, complicated, and emotionally complex.  The film is about the intelligent apes attempting to take their ascendancy as the dominant species.  The Colonel sees this as a holy war and that history hinges on which side wins.  In that sense, he is correct, but it is hard to root against your own species.  And yet the apes are undoubtedly persons who are want a chance at the freedoms that all persons have.

The biggest detriment that this movie has is that the second film, Dawn, was superior to this one.  With the exception of one human character in the last film, all of the men and apes were fully realized, three-dimensional characters.  You could completely understand, if not empathize, with every side of the conflict.  The problem with War is that it doesn't use that same care with the antagonistic humans.  The Colonel is made after the mold of Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now.  The character design, the performance, and the way he is filmed make this homage unmistakeable.  The Colonel is insane and filled with religious zealotry in his war.  And even though they give him a tragic backstory, you can never get behind him because of his cruelty.  In Dawn, I agonized for the humans and their desire for survival alongside the apes.  Because of the Colonel, that wonderful contradiction of emotion is absent from War.

As a Catholic I found the villain's religiosity a bit annoying, but I did not think it too overdone.  I'm not one that says a movie needs balance in its point of view and there have been people throughout history who have used God to glorify their fight rather than fight to glorify God.

And yet the Christological imagery in relation to Caesar is unmistakeable.  He is the leader and savior of the apes.  Their salvation rests on him.  That is not to say that he is a Christ-figure.  In fact, the whole movie is ultimately about Caesar's struggle with his own darkness.  He is always in danger of become like the evil Koba (Toby Kebbel), the ape who started the war.  And you feel the pull towards the darkness.  Caesar attempts to be rational and merciful.  But in this fallen world, mercy can have a horrible cost.  The question is whether or not the cost of a cruel soul is better or worse.  Caesar struggles with this the entire film and the outcome is always in question.

Some could read a very strong anti-human philosophy in this story.  And to be sure, the original Apes series from the 1960's had a strong nihilistic streak in it.  But once you accept that the apes are persons who share the defining trait of humanity being rational animals, then the focus becomes not apes vs. humans but on the apes will embrace moral good or moral evil.

This movie has some excellent motion-capture performances, Serkis most of all.  Every time he is on screen, Sirkis gives one of the most charismatic and tragic performances I've seen in a sci-fi character.  Zahn's Bad Ape came close to becoming a complete Jar Jar, but the character never crosses the silliness line.  Miller's Nova is heartbreakingly endearing in every scene she is in.  You can understand how she melts the hardened, frozen hearts of the apes.  Harrelson's Colonel is my least favorite performance in the film.  He does a fair job with character as written, but crazy on screen usually means that depth is lost.  You have to be horribly charismatic to make crazy engaging like Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter or Heath Ledger's Joker.  Harrelson doesn't quite make that level.

As I said earlier, the movie isn't really a war movie.  There is a good deal of violence and fighting, but there was actually a lot more action in the second film.  This movie feels more like a revenge Western and prison escape film.  In all honesty, it would have made much more sense to call the last film War for the Planet of the Apes and this current one Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

My general feeling on trilogies is that the third film has to be the best.  If it does not, it leads to an inescapable sense of dissatisfaction.  If the third film is very good, but not the best, the dissatisfaction can be lessened but never abolished.  Unfortunately, the second film in this series is better than this film.

But Reeves has still given us a film worth watching and a fitting send off to Caesar's story.  He knows how to use the CGI technology to enhance the emotion and drama of the story rather than detract, and that is a rare thing in the blockbuster.  His minimalistic dialogue means that he has to tell the movie primarily with the visuals, which he does incredibly well.  His use of Michael Giacchino is superb and used for maximum effect.  In terms of story, he has wisely built the bonds to characters we have come to know over the last two film so that we are desperate for them to have a happy ending and our hearts break if any of them meet tragic ends.

My care for them was strong that I was actually saying to myself during a moment of peril for the main character, "Come on, Caesar!"  I yearned for Caesar to come out on top both in soul and in fact.  I will not say if he succeeds.  But Reeves and Sirkis deserve a great deal of credit for creating one of the greatest, if not the greatest, motion capture character of all time.

And for that I say: Hail, Caesar!

4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Trailer Time: Ready Player One Comic Con Teaser

My first thought when I saw this teaser was, "The licensing alone must have cost this movie a fortune!"

I think that's why so many properties owned by Warner Bros. are featured prominently like the Iron Giant or DC characters.  But I'm pretty sure Back to the Future is owned by Universal.  If this movie is really going to incorporate as many pop culture items as its teasing, then they must have shelled out tens of millions of dollars.

I've read the book and I enjoyed it a great deal, but it was incredibly cynical, with an unlikeable lead, and the whole story had lots of nostalgia, but no heart.  That is why I am so excited that Steven Spielberg is the director.  Say what you will about Spielberg (who I happen to think is the greatest film director of all time), but he knows how to reach the heart.

I also got a big kick out of how they used the music from Willy Wonka, which has very strong thematic connections to this movie.

I need to see more to get psyched, but I like what I see so far.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sunday Best: Christopher Nolan Movies - UPDATE 2017

With Dunkirk out in theaters, I thought I would take moment to look back at the films of Christopher Nolan.   This is an update to the list originally made after the release of Interstellar.

Nolan has now made 10 films and none of them are bad.  It helps that he is very selective about his films and he has incredible personal control over all of the stories he's ever filmed.  I also like that for the most part he has a strong hand in the writing of his stories.

Also, I've rewatched some of his some of the films and have rearranged the rankings a bit.

So below are all 10 of Nolan's movies ranked in order from least to greatest.

10.  Insomnia

Of all Nolan's movies, this one is the one that feels the least Nolan-y.  And as far as I know it is the only one that is a remake of another film.  But it is still very dark and moody with some excellent performances.  Pacino's guilt is so visibly felt throughout the film and Robin William's turn as a mastermind killer showed a bold choice.  And the film still deals with big ideas about truth and conscience.

9.  Following

I caught this one on Netflix and it is a fascinating noir film about a man who becomes obsessed with following random people that he sees in public.  This could have easily devolved into some kind of psycho-sexual nonsense.  But he sets out early on that it about this a man who cannot connect to people who is drawn into a strange world of pulling the curtain back on people's lives.  It also is the first film that shows Nolan's funky use of chronology.

8.  Batman Begins

Nolan modeled this film after Richard Donner's Superman and it shows.  He tells a story that is epic in its scope and takes us on Bruce Wayne's journey in a way that no other cinematic Batman has.

7.  The Dark Knight Rises

Unlike many of its detractors, I think the final chapter of Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy is fantastic.  He does an excellent job of drawing elements from the previous movies and weaving them into a film that feels like a definitive goodbye to his story.  To this day I get chills when Selina Kyle tries to get Bruce to leave with her saying that he doesn't owe anything to people of Gotham and that he already gave them everything, to which he responds: "Not everything.  Not yet."

6.  Dunkirk

I will have a full review for this later, but this is probably the best work that Nolan has done with the camera.  This is a essential filmed with a silent movie aesthetic where he wants to tell the movie purely by the visuals.  It is gripping from start till finish.

5.  Interstellar

This is Nolan's most emotional movie.  It is not that his other movies are cold or are not moving.  But this was the first time I ever saw him reach deep and pull at the heartstrings while once again wrestling with the big ideas of life.

4.  The Prestige

This is a movie that will mess with your head.  Even when you figure out one twist (which I did a bit too early), when the film finishes and you understand the implications of what the last 5 minutes reveals about obsession… it sticks with you long after the movie is over.  I have rewatched this movie several times in the last few months and it gets better and better with repeated viewing, which alone makes it different than most movies out there.

3.  Inception

I have seen this movie over and over and I find it fascinating every time.  The layers that stack upon layers never suffocate the action through line of the story that holds you up until the very last second.

2.  The Dark Knight

Arguably the greatest super hero film ever made, Nolan understood that he could make a film that transcends traditional genre walls and talk about something deep about human nature.   People often play up the violent and dark nature of the Joker, but it shouldn't overlook Nolan's ultimate message which is that people are naturally decent.  That is a radical message in today's cinema.

1.  Memento

I have never seen a movie like this.  The level of complexity, artistry, execution, and transcendence continues to blow me away more than a decade later.  When people see this movie they rethink what movies can be.  And that is why this is his best film.